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Inertia of Farming

Beware the inertia of farming. It is perhaps the most commercially and emotionally hazardous factor of farming. It is the tendancy to stay the same or do nothing in a changing world. It is also the most heart-breaking as you see continued hard work being unrewarded, or worse still, going to waste.

This is a hazard of any business, but is, in my experience, more prevelant in farming than any other industry. I also believe it is worse for farming because those in the industry are largely price takers unable to control the price they receive for goods by either market dominance or uniqueness, such as branding.

In the arable world there are three significant crops where I have seen the inertia take hold to the detriment of the farming business: sugar beet, rape and potatoes.

In the case of sugar beet I have seen the following examples:

In 2015 I saw a sugar beet crop that did not take, with low germination the field was very patchy and my guess is that it would struggle to yield 8 ton to the acre if it were to continue. In my opinion the field was not good enough to grow sugar beet on in the first place, although it had grown the crop many years ago. Rather than simply get rid of the crop and cut losses the farmer chose to clear the field and resow sugar beet seed into the same field. Talking to him he was determined that the field was going to grow sugar beet as that what was intended and he would consider no alternative. I wonder how he procured the seed. This is a classic example of inertia. He disregarded the fact that the late start in growth would be an issue hoping for a warm back end of the season. Now whether he made a right or wrong decision, whilst relevant, is less important as to why he made the decision, and I have no doubt in this case that inertia took over.

Years before this I saw intertia taking over in decisions to continue to grow sugar beet against increasing costs and diminishing yields without regard for commerciality. The reasons behind doggedly continuing to grow sugar beet were; "I've always grown it;" "I don't know what else to plant." and "Its a good break crop." All these reasons are perhaps valid in their own way, but all were being used to justify inertia.

Rape is a crop that whilst the risk profile and cost can be high, because it is a relatively fast growing brassica, you can get away with trashing and replanting a failing crop. However, it is with the utmost despair that I have seen farmers spray off and replant rape for the third and in one case the fourth time. The reasoning tended to be when I challenged such action: "Its difficult to find another crop to plant;" or "I don't know what else to do." Inertia takes over from commerciality. With any crop that is failing the option to leave land fallow is unpopular. The inertia of the arable farmer is so great that doing nothing with an area of land is painful, even if commercially it is the right action.

With the high costs and resulting higher risks the inertia of the potato farmer is possibly something we should be grateful for in ensuring we can have our chips. With expensive machinery, chemicals and seed the challenge I have seen has most often been towards retirement as inertia takes over the decision to invest for just one more season. One particular farmer comes to mind as he was determined he would pack in potatoes on a good year and planned this at the age of 64. It was a good year as hoped, but enjoying a profit brough about by good yield and price he decided to have, "just one more year". The inertia of farming and the will to farm had taken over from a sound financial decision. I both understand and respect this. However, his desire to end on a good year took him to the age of 76 before he could match what he could have done twelve years earlier as he sought to recoup a mixture of bad and average years. In that time he was both older and less fit. However, a slightly younger nearby farmer took heed from the lesson learned from him and stuck to a planned retirement date.

This inertia is inbuilt into the blood of a farmer. In some ways it is healthy, but it makes it hard. Those with successors do not wish to hand over control. Those without succession do not wish to pack it all in and loose the ability to hop in the tractor and do some work. Often the healthiest answer is a compromise, for example let somebody else contract farm your land and help them out in the tractor? Let the next generation take over, but stay as a trusted guide and an extra pair of hands when needed. Inertia can blind you to other possibilities.

The inertia of farming is also a hazard for the livestock farmer. The dairy farmer in particular has a close personal relationship with a herd that has been built up over time and handled at least twice a day every day, won rosetts, and sweated blood to maintain. Of course, they are not alone. The beef herdsman, the shepherd and the pig farmer all build up inertia in keeping their livestock and caring for animals they are proud of. The investment of their money, work, knowledge and skill creates an inertia that is very hard to break and limits their ability to respond in a timely manner to changes in market forces and other circumstances that so often are outside their control. This inertia can be commercially fatal and is made all the harder by the fact that to make a tough decision often involves accepting both the physical loss of livestock and potentially loss of cash. In such circumstances it takes great courage to break away from inertia and make a change, stop doing what you are doing, or change the way you are doing it.

What makes inertia all the more painful to the farmer is that they are often victims to forces that are outside their control making the commercial decisions required all the more hard to anticipate or accept in their minds. The sad fact is that no farmer is entitled to keep his business in exactly the same style, location and method year after year protected from change.

So my advice is as follows:

Be aware of your inertia.

Ask yourself "what if" and be prepared to answer honestly. This may help you avoid some of the pain of inertia.

Talk to others, advisers, other farmers.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

Recognise and be aware of the inertia of farming.

For further help or information:

FCN website with information

Part of a series of 7 posts I did about change

Lincolnshire Rural Support Network

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