DURING a recent conversation with a neighbour, as we tried to avoid talking about bad weather, a bad harvest, bad sowing conditions, slug damage, soil damage and other gloomy matters, we chanced on the number of successful farmers who started young.
The downside of that topic is that several of those we could think of started farming in their own right in their teens or early twenties because their fathers died young.
That is not always a launch pad for a successful career. Both of us could also think of cases where a father’s early death had seen their successors and family lose a tenancy. For a minute or two, the conversation was more miserable than the weather.
Then we got back on track with the success stories, young men, still almost boys in some cases, who had to take responsibility and grow up fast.
It could be argued that farming more than most jobs – with the possible exceptions of royalty and estate owners – is geared to that assumption of responsibility and decision-making. Most farmers’ sons, and daughters when given the chance, learn about what their father and family do from the time they’re aware of anything.
Farming is an all-enveloping part of their life. It’s what is talked about at mealtimes and at night, fathers and often mothers live on the job, children do farm chores from the time they can toddle. Most of us felt by the time we were late-teens we could do a better job than father.
Realisation dawns later, summed up by Mark Twain’s comment: “When I was 15 I was amazed at how stupid my father was. When I was 25 I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in 10 years.”
But the successful farmers my neighbour and I were discussing hadn’t had that chance to reappraise a father’s efforts. Sudden death left them on their own. Some were lucky with helpful, knowledgeable, hard-working mothers. Others weren’t. Most of us can think of examples of both.
The real point we discussed was whether these men would have been as successful if their fathers had lived longer and seen them into their late 20s, early 30s or even 40s before stepping aside.
I believe the ones I have in mind would have been as successful, quite probably in partnership – not necessarily formal – with their parent. In spite of the well-documented pitfalls that lie in wait for family farming partnerships, there are many successful examples of generations working together and the business making steady, sometimes spectacular, progress.
Others might have found playing second fiddle on a family farm too restrictive and left to become successful in another line of business. There are many examples of that too, particularly in the past 30 years when following father is not necessarily the ambition it once was.
We’ll never know what might have happened, and neither will they. As Winston Churchill said, the deficiency of hindsight is that while we know the consequences of what has been done, we don’t know what the consequences would have been of some other course.
What might be more relevant is knowing how many of those who had to start young themselves have given their children opportunity and responsibility at an early age – and if so, whether has it worked.
That thought was triggered by a recent article about the children of some of the world’s tycoons, such as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. Are their children as hungry for success as their famous fathers?
Some are. Donald Trump, junior, said their childhood holidays were spent working on Trump senior’s building projects and, in his case, touring job sites with his father or listening to him in board meetings. For that, read feeding stock, driving tractors, marts, farm sales and agricultural shows in any number of farming dynasties.
By coincidence I also saw a quote from Helen Browning, a tenant farmer and chief executive of the Soil Association. She told a recent conference organised by the Family Farmers’ Association: “I’m grateful that my father gave me the reins of the farm at age 24 and told me to get on with it. It was an extraordinarily bold thing to do and I’m sure he knew I would make loads of mistakes.
“But in the next 10 years I did a huge amount, set up several businesses and went for it in a way I don’t think I would have done if I hadn’t had the opportunity until my 40s.”
A thought there for some older farmers who are reluctant to give up the reins Helen referred to.
Another thought for older farmers: accident and fatality rates on farms are much higher for children and over-60s. No one likes to think that their reactions slow down, but they do when working with machinery and livestock – latest reminder, a 76-year-old dying in a livestock-feeding accident.
The message, as always, is to think, think and think again while doing a job, always planning to avoid the need for swift reactions or being pinned by large animals.
And know when to quit.