Lessons Learned From Farming

My grandfather was a farmer. He worked on the farm up into his 90′s, and only recently stopped because of health issues.

My Grandpa

There are some things that I’m sure he learned that apply to managing a company (especially an IT company).

You Harvest What You Plan(t)

A farmer doesn’t decide what kind of crops he is going to harvest in August. He decides in January, when the ground is still frozen and covered in snow. It takes a certain amount of planning to decide what to plant, how much to plant, and where to plant it. My grandfather would read the Farmer’s Almanac – a guide to farming, including predictions on what the next growing season was going to be like. He would watch the evening news, which in a rural community like the one he lived in, would discuss farming (commodity prices, local farming issues, etc.). He would gather relevant information, sort it out, and use that (as well as intuition) to formulate his plan. The planning part of the process is critical. You wait too long, and before you know it the only thing that you are growing is weeds.

Rotate Your Crops

Early on, farmers discovered that if you kept growing the same thing in the same spot (especially without fertilizer) you’d get less and less of whatever it was you were trying to grow. They discovered that if you had several different crops and switched up where you planted them, it would improve yields. This is known as crop rotation (not to be confused with crop circles). The moral is this: if something isn’t growing quite right, perhaps it is time for a little change. Keeping doing what you are doing, but try it under slightly different circumstances. Along with this, embrace change. Don’t burn yourself out by trying to get the same results by doing the same things, over and over again.

Cows Like Cut Grass
Cows are interesting (and tasty) animals. They would simply stand around in a field of grass, and not eat much of it. As soon as a mower would go along and cut it down, they would eat it. For whatever reason, they preferred cut grass. Often it is like this with customers: if they don’t see something appealing, they won’t buy it. If it looks appealing, they will give it a try. Do your best to make your products appealing. Don’t sell grass. Sell cut grass. Sell delicious, juicy, easily digestible, bite-sized grass.

Spend Your Resources Wisely
I once had a friend who, with his brothers, started a small lawn maintenance business. They were given a certain amount of money, and with that money they bought a lawnmower. They also decided that they needed a company logo, so they bought a fancy drawing tablet. While the one was figuring out how to use the drawing tablet, the other tried out the lawnmower. The lawnmower was started, but quickly stopped, as it had no oil in it. The result was a ruined lawnmower, and a failed business. Had they not spent the money on a drawing tablet, they may have had enough to buy a used lawnmower.

The old grain truck.  She still runs.

My grandfather was never really all about owning the latest/greatest farming equipment. The equipment that he had worked, and was enough for him. (His grain truck was built in the 1950′s, and to this day, is still insured, registered, and runs!). There is an important lesson in all this: spend your resources on things that are of worth. If this means saving money by not having the latest and greatest thing that you don’t really need, then so be it. If this means spending a little more to get some reliable equipment, then so be it.

Time is a Resource
To others, a farmer appears to have all the time in the world. It’s true, there is only so much farming (and planning) that one can do when the ground is covered in snow and frozen solid, but when harvest season hits there is no such thing as free time. It is not abnormal to see farm machinery harvesting crops into the wee hours of the morning when the conditions are right. At that point in time – harvest season – time is the most valuable thing a farmer has. Don’t ever underestimate the value of your time, and know when to trade it for money (and vice versa). To a young father, it might be more valuable to hire a local youth to mow his lawn so he can go play with his children. To a local youth, it might be more worth it to go mow lawns that play video games. In everyone’s life, time is a very limited resource. Be careful of how and when you spend it.

Cash Crops
A cash crop is one that has the potential to bring in large amounts of money in a single harvest/season. Cash crop prices have the potential to rise quickly, and to fall quickly. It’s important to do your research, and not bet the entire farm on a single cash crop. The steady crops (in my grandpa’s area: wheat, canola, barley, hay, corn, etc.) would never bring in the same amount of money as a cash crop, but they usually grew well and there was always a market for them. Don’t be afraid to diversify, just don’t do it all at once.

External Circumstances
A farmer can’t change the weather. That being said, there are other things that he can control: fertilizer, weeds, irrigation, etc. By controlling what you can, you increase your chances of success. Find out what is in your power to change, and use it to your advantage (within reason).

Scentless (Senseless) Destruction
In my youth, I was often paid to pick a particularly noxious weed called scentless chamomile. It wasn’t a particularly bad looking weed – a large bushy plant covered with white flowers. The dangerous thing with scentless chamomile was how pervasive it was. A single flower, if left unchecked, could spawn a hundred thousand other plants. The plant itself was also very difficult to kill. If you burned it, it would drop flowers/seeds onto the ground, which would then need to be burned again. Normal herbicides were not strong enough to kill it, and the ones that could were prohibitively expensive. It was often most economical to hire a bunch of youth to go into a field and remove it by hand. The moral of the story is this: if you don’t keep your ‘weeds’ in check, they can eat you alive. This may include current market trends, unchecked debt, copyright law, failing to innovate, etc. I can think of at least two major tech companies that are currently being eaten alive in their respective markets because they failed to innovate and failed to keep up with what the market was doing. Don’t let that happen to you. Keep your ‘weeds’ in check.

The Cow Won’t Milk Herself
My grandpa would be up early every morning to go milk the cow, collect the eggs, and feed the various animals. He was up long before anyone else on the farm. Some things are time critical, and just have to be done. Nobody likes getting up at 5:00 AM (at least nobody I know), but at least it justifies an afternoon nap. You can’t expect the cow to milk herself, and you shouldn’t expect anyone else to do your own work.

Work Builds Character, So Get To Work

One of the things my parents used to tell us children was “Work builds character, so get to work!”. There is some truth to this – the value of the work done isn’t just in completing the job. The true value of work is what you become by doing it.

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