How to ignore the naysayers in agriculture
Hettinger, North Dakota, ranchers Sean and Kat Weinert learned at the outset of their ranching career that they would have to ignore the negative outside messages boxing them in if they were going to have a fighting chance at opening the doors to a life of ranching.
For Sean, who grew up in Montana with no ranch background, the negative messages from established farmers and ranchers began back in college.
“I had dreams of owning my own ranch someday,” he says. “I didn’t know what it would look like or how this dream would be accomplished. I seldom told anyone about my ambitions because when I did talk about it, I was told that I wasn’t born into that life. What did I know about ranching? I was told I could never afford to get into that business.”
Today, the Weinerts and their three children own the Lost Creek Cattle Company. Their ranch headquarters sits on 140 acres of land they bought and paid for in five years. They lease another 1,000 acres of grassland for grazing their herd of 120 cows. They have worked at jobs in town as needed to meet financial goals, while Kat’s home-based photography business has now grown into a family-sustaining enterprise. No surprise that the Adams County Farmers Union recognized them with a Young Farm Family of the Year award.
The universal lessons the Weinerts learned about the importance to success of ignoring “negative messages” applies to any work or walk of life.
“Ever since we began our journey,” says Sean, “we have heard that it is impossible to get into farming and ranching unless you are born into it or have a spouse who is. We continue to hear this message, along with a new one: Because there is no money in it, there seems to be no hope for anyone in production agriculture.
“These negative messages are a disease that if repeated often enough and long enough, will eventually be believed by most people,” he says. “Horse clinician Buck Brannaman once said, ‘If all you are thinking about is your horse bucking you off, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ I believe the same holds true in business. If we only focus on the negative, we will only get the negative.”
Before buying their ranch, the couple was surrounded by well-intentioned but negative outside voices telling them the place would not support them.
“Our friends and family pointed out that the house was in a shambles and told us that the place was not for us,” says Kat. “But one of my aunts encouraged us to fight for it.”
They did just that. Ignoring the naysayers, they bought the ranch, “gutted” the house to restore it, and made the place their headquarters. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Kat, who was raised on a ranch in western North Dakota.
Both “positive people,” Sean and Kat are helping themselves achieve their goals by keeping a close eye out for opportunities, some obvious and others hidden within the challenges themselves. They found, for instance, that the price of the ranch was fair. As was the price and purchase arrangement of the first set of 20 cows they bought.
Besides finding such out-of-the-norm financial breaks from generous people, the Weinerts discovered good ideas, encouragement, and challenge coming from others with positive outlooks who are willing to “think outside the box.” This had led the Weinerts to insightful practices related to ranching.
“We learned that through the right genetics, proper grass management, and working with nature, a decent profit can still be made in this business,” says Sean. The Weinerts direct market grass-fed beef and sell forage-developed bulls through Pharo Cattle Company.
“We ended up intentionally surrounding ourselves with positive people who helped us look beyond the status quo and showed us there were better ways to do things,” says Kat.
Adds Sean: “There is no doubt that money is tight in agriculture, but that does not mean that success is impossible. I believe there is a lot of opportunity out there if we will only go out and find it.”
PRACTICAL STEPS TO CHANGE
Soil health educator Jon Stika, formerly a soil scientist with the North Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service, encourages farmers and ranchers to think about their goals, practices, and problems in new ways. While Stika’s focus is soil health, his principles apply to any enterprise in any walk of life.
Stika encourages farmers and ranchers to ask enough “why questions” to uncover the root cause of problems relating to soil health. Applying the same process to broader issues could uncover new ways of thinking about our choices. Or it could lead to creative management twists that could wring solutions out of problems.
Illustrating how asking “why” can uncover the root cause of soil erosion, for instance, Stika says: “A farmer might tell me, ‘I have soil being carried away by water erosion.’ I encourage him or her to ask why. The answer is, because the water is not infiltrating. Why? Because the soil aggregates are poorly formed. Why? Because there’s not enough biology in the soil to make stable soil aggregates. Solving the problem of water erosion requires making the changes needed to build life in the soil.”
Stika offers these tips for envisioning and implementing creative change:
- Set a goal. “Write down your goal,” he says. “You might describe your farm as you would like it to be.”
- Consider that fixing the symptom of a problem is not a legitimate goal. For instance, soil erosion is a symptom. Because the problem is dysfunctional soil, the goal would be to develop healthy soil.
- Keep learning. Seek new knowledge about your goals, problems, and potential tools that might address the problems. “We typically need to hear something from multiple sources before we try it, especially if it’s something out of the box,” says Stika.
- Ask why. Asking enough “why questions” eventually leads us past the symptoms, past the tools, and helps us uncover the heart of the problem.
- Start small. Experiment with change on a small scale. “Overcome inertia by doing something simple to begin with,” he says.
- Be patient. Because the results of change, of course, take time to evolve, Stika suggests giving experimental practices enough time to show benefits.
“If you’re trying to improve biology in degraded soil, for instance, consider that it takes three to four years for the soil biology to regenerate and start to show the benefits of better water infiltration and improved residue break down,” he says.
Sean and Kat Weinert