This article is printed in the most recent issue of The Stockman Grassfarmer and written by our good friend, Jim Gerrish. For more great articles like this, subscribe to The Stockman Grassfarmer. If you are interested in an upcoming speaking engagement or prefer private consultation, contact Jim.
What Is the Greatest Challenge to Being A Grass Farmer? By Jim Gerrish
Allan Nation used the term “grass farmer” to describe a new type of agricultural producer who was something beyond the conventional mold of a farmer or a rancher.
The true grass farmer is someone who understands the foundation of our business is harvesting solar energy and converting it into a salable product.
A grass farmer strives to create a healthy landscape where water infiltrates and does not escape the boundaries of the farm as runoff; someone who understands that life in the soil is as critical to farm production as the life above the soil.
A grass farmer understands the fewer steps you put between your livestock and the direct harvest of solar energy, the more likely it is that you will be profitable.
The true grass farmer is someone who becomes one with their landscape and the life within it. Grass farming has been described as farming in harmony with nature. This is contrary to many of the basic tenets of conventional or industrial farming where nature is viewed more as an enemy to be vanquished. Droughts and floods. Weeds and bugs, Scorching summer and bitter winter. All of these are aspects of nature conventional farmers and ranchers do daily battle to overcome.
It is very hard for most conventional farmers to understand grass farmers. For this lack of understanding grass farmers are often ridiculed, ostracized, and sometimes, sadly, beaten into submission to the gods of iron and oil. Sometimes that conflict is fought in the local coffee shop, sometimes across the neighbor’s fence line, and sometimes across the kitchen table.
That brings me to the consideration of what is the grass farmer’s greatest challenge.
Four years ago, I received an anonymous letter from a frustrated grass farmer. It was five pages long and it outlines a 30-year long struggle to convert the family farming operation to an entirely pasture-based grass farming business. The letter writer asked me to somehow tell this story and try to help other farm families struggling with the same issues find some resolution.
I thought about that letter quite a bit at the time and tried to find something to pull out of it for a monthly column. I came up empty.
Earlier this year, I spent a day with a farm family and when I left, one of the family members put an envelope in my hand and suggested I read the contents some time later,. I did and, lo and behold, it was the same letter I had received anonymously four years earlier.
Now I had a face and a person to attach the story to. The victim-less crime now had a victim. How many times do we experience that in life? Some issue that never mattered an iota to us becomes a cause when it becomes personal.
I think the greatest challenge to becoming a true grass farmer are those family members who cannot see the farm with the same vision.
If your brother is a crop farmer who sees only gross income, how is he going to switch from growing corn bringing in $1000/acre to a cow-calf operation with a revenue of only $300/acre? That is a very hard sell. But, why does he have a job in town? He says he can’t make it just farming. When the breakeven cost of growing a bushel of corn is $3.85/bushel and the price is $3.46/bushel, a gross income of $1000 doesn’t pay the bills.
If you have a gross margin of $240/calf and it takes you three acres to run a pair year around, the gross margin per acre is $80. Which enterprise is actually better for the farm?
As long as your brother looks at gross income rather than gross margin per acre, he will never understand grass farming as a viable business.
When you have been taught all your life to till ground, kill weeds, spray bugs, and take whatever price the elevator offers you, it is hard to understand there is another way to use the farm.
If your culture says land must be divided with a 5-strand barbwire fence on the quarter section line, how can you accept weird shaped pastures created with single polywire? The whole cultural construct must first change.
As long as the mentality is that is it OK to spend $100,000 for a new tractor but you must buy the cheapest electric fence energizer at the farm and home store, grass farming will not move ahead. As long as the thought process i that the land rental rate is too high to run cattle on that field so we better plow it up, grass farming will never advance.
When farmers can wrap their heads around the idea that Mother Nature is our friend, then grass farming will move forward. When we truly believe our mission as stewards of the land is to create a living landscape on every acre of ground we manage, then we will become true grass farmers.
Sadly, that is why we still say we advance only one funeral at a time.
Hate to start the New Year with such a downer thought. Let’s see what February brings.
Jim Gerrish is an independent grazing lands consultant provide service to farmers and ranchers on both private and public lands across the USA and internationally. He can be contacted through www.americangrazinglands.com. His books are available from the SGF Bookshelf page 26. He will present a Stockman Grass Farmer Grassroots of Grazing Schooland a Stockman Grass Farmer Management-Intensive Grazing School in February.