BEATING THE ODDS 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Communication, positivity key to perseverance
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Cribbs is an associate editor at American Farm Publications.)
For this special supplement, Beating the Odds, editors and reporters spoke with a number of regional farmers who have persevered in agriculture despite extraordinary challenges. Some were financial. Others were personal or physical.
While speaking, for instance, with Taylor and Brandon Huffman, two twentysomethings juggling a new marriage and a farm with more than $1 million of debt, I wondered what qualities link people like the Huffmans — who, so far, seem to be managing — and others profiled in this section who successfully push forward, particularly in a challenging and complicated time for Delmarva agriculture.
The question led me to Margaret VanGinkel, who manages an assistance hotline at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She’s helped plenty of farmers in distress, she said, and I spoke with her about what characteristics define those who defeat their obstacles. She repeated one important quality: Strong communication.
“When (farmers are) having problems, they kind of hibernate, and they don’t seek out help and work with other people,” she said. “Farmers tend to be a little more introverted a lot of times. They like working on their own and being on their own. … The more we can talk about some of those things, the better it is.”
Communication becomes particularly important when farming communities are changing. In the Delmarva region, they’re shrinking, often due to encroaching development, consolidation and the advancing average age of our farmers. In VanGinkel’s Iowa, the small farming town, once and perhaps still a defining Midwestern cliché, is in decline. She notes the absence of coffee shops that used to attract farmers who would talk and commiserate.
“Some of the towns don’t have much left in these little towns anymore, so that’s a problem,” she said.
Others often have trouble communicating with a frequent source of their problems — their lender, VanGinkel said. And then there are family issues. Farms are usually a family affair, and she said she somewhat frequently works with operations where a sibling or other family member is being pushed out to cut costs. Spousal concerns are another issue. She said she often takes calls from women whose farmer husbands won’t communicate with them.
“They haven’t been included in what the problems are,” VanGinkel said. “Many times the wife or the spouse has a pretty good outside income… and she’s not sure she wants to put money into a dying farm.”
The farm can become an inextricable part of a man or woman’s identity, particularly if it’s been in his or her family from the start. Having a flexible, healthy self-image can be necessary to moving past issues on the farm, even if it means shifting into a new role in agriculture or something entirely different, VanGinkel said. It’s important to communicate and maintain relationships. To be social and to ask for assistance.
Another point VanGinkel reiterated was keeping a positive attitude.
It’s the sort of unobjectionable advice you could sew on a pillow for your living room, but based on my 90-minute interview with the Huffmans, it seems to do the trick. Taylor Huffman mentioned several times her belief that adversity resides mostly inside the head, how she simply dismisses negativity when it arrives. (If you’re wondering how that works, it’s a mystery to me as well, unfortunately.) She said it’s powered her through the death of her father, the weight of heavy, inherited debt and a package of other obstacles that have made for a uniquely busy, young life with her husband.
There are other equally useful and profound stories in Beating the Odds, and they’re more important to hear as farmers persist across the Delmarva region. So take some time to read them. They certainly helped me with perspective.