Killing John Wayne with Five Fingers

When a farmer throws a rope over a barn beam to hang himself and then decides to jump, that is a definite decision with long-term consequences.  He is saying to the world, there is no other way to solve my problems…but there are always other options isn’t there?  

My work with some of the direst farm debt and farm succession cases put me into some pretty intense situations.  I have looked into the eyes of suicidal farmers and grabbed guns out of their hands more times than I’ve got fingers.  What bothers me is that farm suicides are skyrocketing, and everyone is talking about farm economics, mental health, and stress.  Everyone is focused on what goes on in the farmer’s mind ten seconds before he jumps and yet no one talks about the root issues of how dysfunctional decisions were made in the ten years prior to that moment that led to that fatal decision.  

What nobody seems to talk about is the true family dynamics behind the barn.  Modern health sciences have been a silent gamechanger for farming and has completely turned family dynamics on its head.  Instead of one generation passing the torch, retirement-aged farmers are getting hip surgeries and farming into their 80s; and because of the economies of scale required to buy entry-level technology, siblings and cousins (sometimes reluctantly) remain as partners instead of becoming neighbors like back in grandpa’s day. What we haven’t adequately recognized is that the dynamics of farm ownership have shifted from sole proprietorship to partnerships, yet the leadership/decision making style hasn’t. There isn’t one boss on the farm calling all the shots, we have multiple bosses. And everyone is pushing their weight around, trying to get their ideas to be the solutions that fix the farm’s problems. Family members bicker over half the decisions and the other half of decisions nobody discusses due to family politics, leading to decision never being made.  Money slips in between the cracks as a result.  

If decision-making is awkward, then what will the results be?  

If half of the decisions made on the farm are a frustration, how is that creating a work environment that is stress free and good for a farmer’s mental health?  

If you are constantly bickering with family members to some extent, how can you have strong family support necessary for strong mental health?

This stress created by dysfunctional decision-making is killing us on so many levels! We aren’t having farmers committing suicide because of crashing commodity prices.  They are killing themselves because for a decade prior to that moment, partners killed each other’s ideas before arrival.  If you don’t listen to new ideas and continuously change, then how can you have an efficient business? 

The rate of continuous improvement dictates the probability of any business’s survival.  In the past five years commodity prices have dropped by half, yet most farms haven’t been able to drop their cost of production by even five percent.  Why?  

It’s because partners don’t sit down and brainstorm options together.  Instead they argue their agendas.  

John Wayne once said, “Never admit that your wrong.”  His style of leadership reflects how we make decisions together in farming.  Might is right.  We tend to push our ideas around.  We argue our points but don’t stop to listen to what our partners are actually saying.  We get to the point that we don’t care.

I’m right, your wrong.  Do it my way or the highway.  

It gets to the point where it is more important to be right, than for things to be right. This mindset is what causes the farm to lose potential profit and eventually leads to a partner jumping.   

The solution is right there in front of you. Hold out your hand. Instead of only looking at things one way and wagging your finger at your partner, we have to look at things five different ways just like you’ve got five fingers. We have to recognize that for each problem, there are many ways to skin the cat.  Instead of pushing your one solution around, you need to listen to all the options suggested by your partners before making a decision. If your family considered five options prior to making any major decision…it would be a game changer.  Then you and your partners go through each option and weigh the pros and cons together.  It might take an extra five minutes, but it will probably lead to at least five strategic decisions being made each year that could significantly change the farm’s level of profitability.  

What value is there to feeling respected?  This is hard to quantify, but significant.  Often a man sitting on a barn beam feels he has to make a loud statement because he hasn’t been listened to.  Listening to everyone’s opinions (as part of options) will dramatically change family relations and everyone’s sense of self-worth.  It will eliminate many frustrations and create a peace of mind necessary for a sane mind.  Instead of having a culture where you are fighting for your pride, by brainstorming together you are fighting to create a farm together that everyone can be proud of.  

The moral of the story:  By not considering options, we are killing ourselves daily.  

We have to start listening to each other, instead of talking loudly.  We need to stop taking each other and taking the farm for granted, as if they are always going to be around.  We have to start fighting the right battles, not against each other but for what matters most.  The first changes we must make is how we deal with change itself.   

We need to stop pretending we are always right and focus on things being right.   

That starts by looking at things five different ways, not just our way or the highway.  

No farmer will hang himself if he gets into the habit of considering different options!