The Only Way Out Is Through

One of the hardest things about life is trying to accept all the things you can’t control. As a farmer, that makes up a lot of stuff.

In any given year, the weather can hand us an absolute sucker punch to the gut (or somewhere worse). Commodity markets could tank for no reason, or rally to crazy prices after I’ve already sold all my production. Fertilizer prices could skyrocket based on government policy in the US or Morocco. Diesel fuel prices could double because OPEC decides to limit production. The Bank of Canada could decide to increase interest rates. One of my landowners could suffer a catastrophic health decline and decide to sell. All this, and more, could keep me up at night for the rest of my career.

For sure, I’ve had my share of stressful, sleepless nights. I’ve had one storm dump 6 inches of rain on a farm that was already too wet. I’ve had a frost arrive too late in the spring or too early in the fall. The worst one was probably the relentlessly wet harvest of 2019, when the rains started in early August and didn’t let up until it snowed at the end of October. What was a nice crop was absolutely devastated, costing us millions of dollars. These aren’t easy things to set aside and ignore. They grate and grind at you. They rip and tear and your soul. And there’s no guarantee that next year will be any better.

I remember in the fall of 2010, after a disastrously wet season resulted in us only seeding 75% of the crop and having pretty poor results on what we did get, thinking God, I can’t wait until next year. It’ll be so much better than this one. I mean, how could it be any worse?

Well, it got worse. Way worse.

In 2011, we only seeded 25% of the crop, and what we did seed was absolute garbage. It was, by far, the worst crop I have grown in my life. Roads were destroyed, our equipment was brutalized, and our fields were disasters of weeds and ruts. At that point, do you believe that things will really get better? Or do you wallow in nihilism and self-pity? I probably had every right to do so. And I won’t lie – I did let it get to me. No question. But I changed my tune. I chose not to waste my life in a place like that. Instead, I turned my gaze forward, and looked toward next year one more time. And maybe it would have been the last time, if we failed again. A farm can only survive so many disasters in a row. But 2012 turned out to be a great year for us. It all turned around.

We’ve had our ups and downs since, but here we are. Every time things looked the darkest, they turned around. The night is darkest just before the dawn. Maybe a trite saying, but a true one.

The world is on fire right now. Trying to describe all the wild and devastating things that have occurred in the last two years would be a post all in itself. Then, just as the pandemic started to ease off, we had a war break out in Europe. For most of us, it’s hard to describe what it feels like to witness all these events, one after the other. People are dying. What kind of future does this bleak world have to offer any of us after so much pain and tragedy?

To that, I humbly offer a farmer’s perspective. In all my years of challenges and triumphs while growing crops at the vagary of Mother Nature, I have learned one lesson: the only way to move forward is to keep trying; to believe tomorrow can be better than today, even when the world has never looked darker.

Without this steadfast hope, I never would have seen better years than the flood years, or the droughts, or the hail, frost, or snow. I wouldn’t be here today.

My experiences watching crops fail is nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the pain of losing a loved one, or watching a spouse or child walk towards war to save their country. The hardship so many people in Ukraine are enduring right now is tragic, horrifying, and catastrophic. The damage the pandemic inflicted on our society has been truly devastating, with wounds that may take a generation or more to heal. Our country has never been more divided, and it has never been easier to believe our leaders care nothing for it or any of the rest of us.

But there is always hope.

You just have to believe.

The path of nihilism is an easy one. It’s never been easier to believe the future will fail us. But this is the wrong path; the one that will lead you down a road of even more suffering. Believing in the future, taking courage, allowing yourself to feel hopeful that tomorrow will be better than today; that’s hard, but necessary. If we all allow ourselves to believe in a better tomorrow, we’ll create one. It won’t be easy. There will be pain. But it will be worth it.

In Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he writes about what he refers to as your Circle of Influence. When you’re feeling anxious about something, your body is telling you to act. This instinctual response has good reason for being there; 100,000 years ago on the African savanna, feeling anxious about a rustle in the grass 20 yards behind you might just have saved your life. Today, there’s probably no predator at the door, but we feel the anxiety, nonetheless.

Covey suggest splitting things into two blocks: your circle of concern and your circle of influence. By focusing your energy on your circle of concern, you’re being reactive; you’re allowing things you cannot control to control you. By instead focusing your energy on your circle of influence, you can be proactive; working on things you can do something about.

You can’t stop the pandemic, or national energy policy, or the war in Ukraine, or Canada’s exploding debt, or so many other current crises facing us as a society. What you can do, as Dr. Jordan Peterson is fond of saying, is get your own house in order. Help out where you can. And leave the things outside your control where they belong – out of your headspace.

This may all sound easy, but it isn’t, don’t I know it. I know, when the rains don’t come, that worrying about them only causes me unnecessary stress. I know I can’t do a damn thing about it. It hurts, even though I know it shouldn’t. I don’t have this figured out yet, but I’m working on it. How you work through this depends on you. Maybe it’s by meditation, or prayer, or by talking to a spouse, family member, friend, or therapist. Maybe it takes more than you can handle on your own. Asking for help is okay. And it’s worth mentioning one more thing in these troubled times: when the enemy is at your door, like it is for so many in Ukraine, the answer may be to fight.

The crises we face aren’t going to go away tomorrow. We’re going to have to muddle our way through this. And we will. Human beings are remarkably resilient, and we have survived through true calamities in our history; some of which is very recent. The only way out is through, as poet Robert Frost so eloquently put it.

In farming, every spring, we pull our air drills through the fields, planting millions of seeds of hope on every acre. There’s no guarantee of success. There’s no compelling reason to believe those seeds will generate enough of a crop to pay all the bills. And yet, it’s a belief worth having, otherwise, why be a farmer at all?

We’re all farmers, in that way, aren’t we?

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