The business end of farming
By Lyle Benjamin, Montana Grain Growers Association
Editor’s note: The following was posted to Twitter on April 11th by Lyle Benjamin, the immediate past president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, and is published with his permission. It is his account of making the difficult decision to close a farm business and shows the importance of community and making the decision for yourself.
By now, many will have heard that I am closing my farm business and liquidating the assets. Many will be curious about the background and wondering, “How I am doing?” These are both good questions and not only should be asked, but honestly answered, as well. Too often in our farm communities we hesitate to ask out of respect for privacy (but at the unfortunate cost of not appearing to care).
Conversely, those who do “quit” often don’t cathartically talk about the process out of stubborn pride or not wanting to discuss what can feel or look like personal failure. The background? The simple picture is that several years of insufficient rain, combined with poor and declining markets, shrinking crop insurance guarantees, a balance sheet dominated by depreciable assets and some ill-timed equipment upgrades during the good years at the peak of the grain market all combined to create a stressed financial picture that made continued operation a high risk proposition. Low equity going into this venture required decent crops and prices while I built a solid base.
As I looked at the numbers, we could continue to farm, but another year of poor crops and mediocre prices would wipe out what equity remained. That would have put us into or uncomfortably near bankruptcy. One thing I refuse to do is leave local (or any other) vendors holding the bag on bad credit. Those businesses may have skin in the game, but ultimately the responsibility is mine to ensure that no harm accrues to those with whom I do business. That principle, combined with the polite decline by several banks to rent operating money to me for 2020, resulted in my pragmatic decision to liquidate our farm business.
Was my business a failure? No, but it was not returning a profit over several years. The trend was accelerating towards a possible failure. Within the farming community there is an uncomfortable tradition of not facing facts until all hope of salvage is lost. When a farm business fails at that point, the wreckage ripples across the community as debts are defaulted on and bills for tangible goods go unpaid with no hope of collection.
Closing a business while still solvent is the responsible thing to do. It is the community thing to do. One of the reasons I live where is I do is that I like the friends and neighbours we have. As I view the problem, farm liquidation is only failure when it costs other people money. Success can be recognizing that fickle Lady Luck has shifted her attention to other ventures.
One of the central elements of farm culture is the multi-generation heritage of the farm. Too often, the heritage itself is valued over other intangible things like what is good for the farmer’s family. We tend to look back to a homestead year and sentimentally polish it as being the beginning of time. But how did the family happen to arrive on the homestead in that year? They left something else behind, either because it was not working out or because the new opportunity promised more than the old.
Our family was shipped out of Hesse, Germany in 1776 for a reason, left Missouri in the 1890s for a reason, and moved from western Idaho to northern Montana in 1911 for sound reasons. It was not failure that drove those moves, but a clear-eyed view of better opportunities in a new land or business. Each of those generations would understand and approve of selling out and moving on.
My point is, it is okay to make a life-altering decision about your farm. It is okay to make that decision before it is forced upon you. You did not fail. Your neighbours and friends will stand by you and support you if you let them. As I have shared my circumstances and ultimate decision with my peers, friends, and neighbours, I have experienced universal support and even seen the expression of love – not something we expect in a typically stoic farm community, but exactly what we value in a good community. Thank you all, for making me part of this.
If my story keeps one farmer from bankruptcy or suicide, it will have been worth it. There is life after farming.
If you have questions or would like to discuss this further, feel free to reach out to me at Skookumchuck.firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-539-5953.