Column: Can you find balance on a family farm?

Jenny Schlecht
Forum News Service

“Grandma and Grandpa, can you come see us?”

It was such an innocent question from the mouth of my 3-year-old daughter while she video-chatted with my parents on a recent Sunday night. My mom later called the sweet request, which was complete with a well-thought-out suggestion that their corgi could stay in one of our dogs’ kennels, “heartbreaking.”

After my grandpa died a little more than five years ago, my dad kept farming on his own. He had a hired man for a while, as well as help from a number of my cousins and the occasional family friend. But in reality, he’s doing most of it alone. It’s a diversified operation, so there’s always something to do. Late fall and winter mean feeding cattle and then calving, followed by field work in the spring, haying and irrigating in the summer and harvesting from late summer to early fall. There is no downtime.

In past years, my parents found a weekend to come out and see us, usually in late spring, when planting is done, irrigating hasn’t yet started and the cows are on pasture. This year’s late planting season bumped into summer, and there simply hasn’t been sufficient opportunity for the trip.

My girls and I will go visit my parents at some point soon, as we did in the spring. But my husband almost certainly will not come with us. He’s behind on haying, looking at what needs to be cleaned up in the feedlot before we start feeding in the fall and working on countless other tasks on which he feels he’s behind. Maybe we’ll steal him away for an afternoon or a night away at some point, but that’s the best we can do. If he’s in the house before the 10 o’clock news, it’s out of the ordinary.

When people talk about work-life balance, they usually are talking about “town jobs,” where people work normal shifts and have the rest of their time to live the rest of their lives. They’ll say things like, “You just have to make time to get away.” It’s so hard to explain that time is harder to make for us than money — and that’s saying something in the current farm economy.

What does work-life balance look like for the family farmer? I don’t know if there is a balance. Work is life, and life is work, and sometimes you take a little break.

As a best practice, we all need to take time away from work, away from the farm. Our mental and physical health depend on it. But what does that look like in reality, when there is always more work to do and often not enough time or people to do it?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I know there isn’t one in my family. Sometimes, you have to leave something for another day. But other times, taking that time away just isn’t possible, no matter how much you’d like it to happen.

I know there are people who will say we chose our way of life and should just deal with it. That’s true, and we do. But when we talk about the future of the family farm, whether it’s possible to find a work-life balance should be as much a part of the conversation as whether it’s possible to make a living.