This might be the single most important thing in your life to get right. It’s also one of the hardest things any of us will ever do.
As a farmer, I’m well aware of this challenge. There is no end to the work – ever. I’ve never finished my list of things to do on Monday and spent the rest of the week with nothing else to do. And I’m sure I never will. It’s hard to know when to stop. When it’s enough.
I’m not going to claim farming is unique in this issue. While there are some distinctive challenges specific to farmers, such as the seasonal nature of the work and our deep emotional connection to our multi-generational business, I believe finding a “decent” work-life balance is something we all struggle with. All I can share is my own perspective.
I’ve heard a quote on social media that struck a chord with me:
“If I give you my time, we won’t have money. If you want money, we won’t have time.”
This strikes at the very heart of finding a balance. It isn’t as simple as just “finding time”. Time spent with family, or doing hobbies, or just relaxing, is time that could have been spent improving the farm. There is a real opportunity cost to every hour spent away from the operations and the business of farming. There is always another field to check, another machine to inspect or fix, another bill to pay, another budget to update. It just never ends.
Social media doesn’t help this, either. On Twitter, right now, there are a thousand farmers talking about something they’re working on, or thinking about, on their farms. If you’re with your family, spending time away from the farm, two minutes of Twitter can cause that sudden rush of anxiety – someone is doing something that I’m not doing. That I should be doing. With the flip of a switch, you’ve gone from being in the moment with your family, to thinking about the work.
To make things even harder, this is the first generation that’s really put any thought into balance at all. For my Dad, there was no balance. And that’s no slight on him – it was the reality. To survive, the farm needed every minute he could give it. When he wasn’t managing his crops, he needed to be with the cows. Just when everything seemed okay for a few hours, the cows would break out of the fence or an older piece of farm machinery would break down. It wasn’t about what was “enough”, it was about putting food in the refrigerator. There was never enough. The balance he found was taking the kids with him in the tractor or the combine.
Farming has changed, for the better. Today, farming is profitable. There are some who think it shouldn’t be. I’d like them to debate that point with my Dad, who saw what real hardship actually looks like. Now, we can think about, and strive for, balance.
The problem is that mentality is still there. I wake up with it every day. I don’t work as much as my Dad did when he was my age. I don’t put in as many hours. The hours I do put in aren’t filled with backbreaking labour. But I could. And that is where the struggle lies. Every hour I’m not working I wonder: should I be? At any time, that thought can and does arise, unbidden; it may be while I’m playing with the kids, while I’m watching a series with my wife, or when we’re on a family camping trip.
In the next 3-4 weeks, seeding will start. This enormous activity that we undertake every spring consumes every fibre of my being; my body, my energy, all my cognitive power, is poured into this frenetic, stressful, adrenaline-rush of an operation. As seeding concludes, the heart of spraying season ramps up, as we work to protect our crops from weeds, insects, and disease.
And then comes harvest. Harvest, the longest, busiest operation of the year, when the results of all our efforts are finally found; when we get to see if all our work paid off. This is also the time our crops are most vulnerable to damage, be it from rain, hail, wind, frost, or snow. The faster we can get the crop off, the better. This colossal undertaking consumes six weeks of the summer and fall, and when it’s over, you might think the work is, too. You’d be wrong.
The remaining weeks of fall before the snow flies are filled with fieldwork to prepare for next year. There are never enough days in the fall to get it all done.
In all of this, finding balance is near impossible, but crucial.
It isn’t easy for me. I am a co-owner and managing partner of a large grain farm. You may notice I also spend some time writing! I try to serve my community, the agriculture industry, and take professional development to improve myself and my skills. All of this takes time away from farm and family. Balancing all these responsibilities with my family is tremendously difficult. I struggle with it every day. But I do it all because I’m compelled to do so – it’s in my very nature. And yet, though, my family should come first – I just don’t always ensure it does. But I’m trying.
I have three kids, all boys, aged 7, 5, and 2. For anyone who’s just had their first child, or hasn’t had their first yet, or their kids are still very young, I can tell you that everything you’ve heard about how fast it all goes is true. It goes by in a flash. I still can’t believe my oldest is 7. And those first few years are the most magical years you’ll experience in your life. Jordan B. Peterson puts it so well:
You have little kids for four years. And if you miss it, it’s done. That’s it. It’s, you know, lots of things in life, you don’t get to do more than once. Now, obviously you can have more than one child, but all I’m saying is, that period between… zero and five, there’s something about it that’s really, it’s like a peak experience in life. It isn’t much of your life. You might think of it as a long time. But it’s not that long. Four years goes by so fast, you can’t believe it. And if you miss it, it’s gone.”
Don’t miss it.
But you have a business to run too, right? How do you do both?
There are a few ways, with more coming. Delegate tasks to employees, or family members, so you can block time off. When you have that time, don’t waste it. Get off your phone. Make every minute count. Some people turn their phones off at supper time for the rest of the day. For many of us, especially livestock farmers, this probably isn’t an option. But setting it aside, only answering calls and messages as needed, can sure help to remove the temptation to waste away precious minutes on mindless scrolling.
Automation is helping, too, and will help more going forward. Over the next decade, as we begin to truly leave the cabs of our machines, this will open up more time to spend away. While this will surely come with its own challenges, it will create opportunities, too.
Here’s one final truth of work-life balance: no one has it solved. Everyone struggles with it. Put the guilt away. The guilt you feel when you’re not working, the guilt you feel that you missed another baseball game, it won’t help you. Be gentle with yourself. If you’re doing your best to make the most of the time you have with your family, and as long as you’re working to create that time, you’re working on that balance. And that’s all any of us can hope for. Each of us have the same 24 hours every day. Be intentional about how you spend it, and you’ll find that balance.