A man came up to me at a recent farm auction and asked if I remembered a column I’d written many years ago about farmers cutting the first few rounds of hay around a field and then letting the son take over.
Of course I remembered writing it. It was in the early 1990s when farmers cut hay with a haybine. The machine was prone to plug in heavy hay on that first round, if you weren’t watching closely. So the more experienced farmer, the father, did the first rounds.
“Were you writing about us?” the man asked. I had never seen this man before but was eager to hear his side of the story.
“You could have been writing about us,” he continued. “That was the way it was on our farm right to a tee. Dad always cut the first two rounds and then he’d let me cut the rest of the field. I was in my 40s, married with kids and still had never opened up a field.”
He laughed. “That’s the way his father did it and it was a tradition.”
Over the years I had a number of farmers ask if I wrote about them because it was like that on their farm when they were young. Here is an excerpt from the column 26 years ago that resonated with so many farmers:
“I’m sure most farmers have hopes that the next generation will take over the farm and prosper on the farm. There’s nothing more satisfying for farmers than to see one of their offspring take over the business.
“Many father-and-son teams work well together. The son is groomed to eventually take over the business. He works on the farm until he marries — for little pay. That works in many cases. It works if the son wants to farm. And it works if the father treats his son as a business partner, not just a hired man. Let the son work with good equipment if the money is there. Don’t break a young man’s spirit in those few short years when he has the courage and the will to breathe new life into the farm. Listen to his new ideas. Too many well-meaning fathers hold tightly onto the reins. Some forever.
“The son may be in his 40s or 50s but the old man is still dictating how things are done on the farm. And it’s often the successful farmers who make this terrible mistake. Call it dumb and controlling. And sad.
“It doesn’t just happen in farming. It happens in all kinds of businesses. Quite often it signals the eventual end of the business. There’s no way a young man, dominated by his father until he’s 35, 40 or into his 50s, can make the business successful. Some farmers never take the time to teach their sons how to do certain things. They always do it themselves. That’s how they were raised.
“How many farmers do you know who always cut the first two rounds around a field with the haybine? Quite a few, right? Then the son cuts. The son could be married with kids when he finally gets to cut the first round. Imagine how a young man feels when daddy doesn’t trust him to cut the first round because there’s a fence he may hit with the haybine, or he can plug the machine when cutting the tramped down round. What if something happened to the father? The son would have to learn really fast.
“I chuckle when I think of all the farmers years ago who would step out a field to be plowed and would plow the first furrows. When it was all measured out and ready the son took over.
“The farmer should let the son, the future farmer, step and break out the field. If one side of the field happens to be wider than the other, so what. And if he makes a mistake stepping it out, so be it. He’ll learn from the experience. So what if the neighbours chuckle at a lopsided plowed field.”
It sure made my day at the auction to have a farmer remember an old column — one I had fun with.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and agricultural writer. He has been writing weekly and monthly columns since 1987.