One fun fact about me is that I enjoy genealogy. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but I find it thrilling to investigate and learn about my origins – people and places. With just a little digging, I can learn more than just names and addresses; I learn stories. For example, I have a great-great aunt who was run over and killed by a covered wagon.
Such personal stories -- both triumphant and tragic – carry interesting and important lessons. And whether it’s a living relative or a generation gone by, I believe there are several important lessons we can learn from our elders that we can apply to modern times in agriculture. Here are three lessons I have learned from previous generations.
1. Record-keeping helps keep you on track. I’m a notoriously poor bookkeeper. Admittedly, I have a bad habit of stacking up receipts, invoices and expenses in a big pile for my husband to sort out. But, by keeping track of these items, we can budget, plan for the future and make better decisions on everything from running a household to making breeding decisions on the cattle.
My great grandparents, LeRoy and Francis – both deceased, were married in 1936. Shortly after they exchanged “I do’s,” they purchased a farm, but locked the doors and headed west for a six-month honeymoon, where they worked along the coast in odd jobs. It was an adventure, and I’m lucky they documented everything in diaries they both kept throughout their lifetimes. Through their diaries, I can see that in 1936, a gallon of gas cost 25¢; a loaf of bread 13¢; a night in a cabin $1; a box of matches 5¢; a hair cut 25¢; and a block of butter 45¢.
I can tell from looking through their records that they kept close tabs on how much money was coming and going. Even though they were working odd jobs, they managed to be gone from the farm for six months and come home with a little bit of cash to start their life in South Dakota. Slowly but surely, they grew their farm and their family. But, it was careful record-keeping in their modest beginnings that allowed them to get their start. Whether managing a large ranch or the household, documenting expenses and income provides a guide for success.
2. Don’t get in over your head. When my grandparents, Alvin and Devona, bought the farm I currently live on, their friends, neighbors and banker told them they would never make it. But, Grandpa was smart. He made sacrifices along the way. He put half-down on the ranch and paid the rest of the bank note within three years of purchase. He was wary of being in debt, and has always told me that if he didn’t have the money on hand to buy something, he wouldn’t buy it. He made smart decisions to manage the risk of purchasing his operation, but he also didn’t get in over his head. He had a plan and was willing to work with old machinery, eschewing the shiny toys and cars his friends had, to achieve his goals. Today, he can be proud of what he's achieved. His willingness to work hard and be smart with his money paid off for him and his family.
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Today, it can be extremely difficult to be in the cattle business without an operating note, land loan, equipment loan, mortgage, truck payments, etc. It seems my generation, myself included, is impatient to acquire what our parents and grandparents worked their lifetimes to build. All too often, I see couples my age getting in over their heads and falling short on their payments. I’ve learned to set realistic goals and pace myself to get there. I have a lifetime to achieve the goals I've set, and I’m willing to work hard and make sacrifices to get there. And, if it means I drive a rusty tractor instead of a brand new one, then so be it. I’m doing what I love to do, and I’m not in a race to get there.
3. Make family memories. My great grandpa was an only child. He went on to have six children, 17 grandchildren, 37 great grandchildren and seven great great grandchildren, with two more on the way. He not only loved the land and the livestock, but he loved his family, too, and he and my great grandmother spent their lifetimes teaching the next generations important lessons -- how to drive a tractor, plant a garden, sew, can fruits and vegetables, freeze sweet corn and spend time together.
One of my grandpa Arnold's fondest memories is going on an overnight fishing trip. It was one of his fondest memories with his father, and he vowed to spend time and make memories with his family, too. So, the big bunch of us gets together often -- whether it’s a cattle sale, boating at the lake, or exchanging gifts at Christmas, family makes it all worthwhile. You can work all day, but it’s important to remember who you are working for. The next generation is your real legacy; make time for them and make memories.
What are the most important lessons you have learned from older generations? What lessons do you want to pass onto the next generation? Share your best stories, memories and words of advice in the comments section below.