A few months ago a 47 year old South Dakota farmer, “Jack,” wrote me to ask for advice.  We exchanged several emails and a phone call.  

After completing two years of college in art education, Jack returned to farm with his father.  His two older sisters married Minnesota farmers and were not interested in the family farm. 

Jack’s dad told him he could make a better living farming than as an artist or by teaching art.  During their years working together Jack purchased the family farm and equipment from his parents for very reasonable costs.  His parents moved to town three years ago when they were in their mid-70s. 

Jack married a local farm girl, “Lori,” who works in the county Farm Service Agency office. Their two sons currently are pursuing college degrees in Minnesota.  

Jack said he enjoyed crop farming when his dad was around, as well as fishing and hunting pheasants, waterfowl and deer together for many years.  He also liked hunting and fishing with his sons when they were growing up. 

Jack became increasingly unhappy and morose after he started farming on his own three years ago and even more so when his youngest son left for college a year later.  He said, “It’s not fun for me anymore and I have to force myself to get started in the mornings.”

“Lori tells me to quit farming and try something else but I don’t want to let my folks down; the land is paid for and we’re making money.  I don’t know what to do.”

As the only son, and because his parents pinned their hopes on him to continue the family farming operation, it is difficult to leave this agrarian heritage, I told Jack.  But I added that he has an even higher obligation than operating the family farm, and that is to be honest with himself.

His heart is not in what he is doing currently, despite all the “positives.”  I suggested that Jack needs to give himself permission to explore career options. 

During the winters Jack often carves wooden duck and goose decoys, a hobby he thoroughly enjoys.  He recognizes his need to have people around him and dislikes farming alone.

I suggested that Jack float a proposal to a neighbor he mentioned is looking to lease more farmland.  Jack likes this neighbor because he is forthright and does a good job farming. 

When Jack emailed me back some weeks later he said his neighbor would like a three-year lease.  That made sense to Jack, but he was unsure how his parents would feel. 

Renting the land for up to three years gives Jack time to try vocations that he put off pursuing and which might give him greater joy and fulfillment than farming, I observed.  It also preserves an opportunity to return to farming if he wishes.

Furthermore, if one or more of Jack’s sons eventually decide to farm, the land is still available.  Jack doesn’t need to feel he didn’t earn the right to retain the family farm; he worked hard for his parents for many years and gradually purchased their land and equipment.

What does he want to do?  Jack wants to try his hand as a professional carver of wooden waterfowl decoys and to guide clients on hunting adventures.  He will take certification courses to become a licensed guide this winter, he said. 

Jack’s carved wooden decoys won many awards at county and state fairs.  Although he is starting late in life as a professional artist, it’s possible he will find fulfillment and maybe even financial success in artistic endeavors. 

Jack and Lori will maintain control of the family farmland and use the rent to augment their income.  They can provide help to their aging parents when needed. 

Not every farm-raised child has a burning urge to raise crops, livestock or other foods.  The agrarian imperative to provide food and other goods needed to sustain our lives takes many forms.

In Jack’s case, the agrarian urge for food procurement activities is demonstrated by creating duck and goose decoys that might appeal to art collectors and any hunting clients who wish to purchase his handmade decoys.  His view of himself as successful is tied up more in these challenges than in fulfilling his parents’ wishes, even though they gave him a comfortable start in life. 

Our human urges to produce the food and materials needed for life can take root in endeavors that don’t always involve tilling land, harvesting crops and raising livestock.  All types of work that produce food or the income to purchase the food and materials we need to take care of ourselves, our families and our communities are expressions of our inherited agrarian imperatives.

It will be interesting to see how Jack’s efforts materialize, but I know his heart is in what he said he will try after this crop year. 

Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist who lives on his farm in western Iowa.  He can be contacted at: www.agbehvioralhealth.com.