Farming with Purpose and Principles[i]


John Ikerd


During the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, I recall being unable to understand why many farmers committed suicide when confronted with the inevitable loss of their farms. I now believe that they had lost their sense of purpose in life. They thought they were meant to be farmers, and if they could no longer farm, they could see no reason for living. They were right, at least in a sense; if our life has no purpose, it makes no difference whether we are living or dead. If we aren't meant to do anything in particular, it doesn't matter what we do or don't do. Had these farmers thought more rationally about their purpose in life, perhaps they would have lived to fulfill it.


Over the years, I have met many farmers, particularly those on small farms, who truly believe they were meant to be farmers. Farming to them is not just a means of making money so they can buy things that will make them happy; farming is the thing that makes them happy. They feel good when they are able to take care of their land. They feel good when they are able to be a good neighbor. Farming today is a business and farmers must make money to continue farming. Still, many farmers today don't farm to make money; they make money so they can farm. Their purpose in life is to be a farmer.


The big question for farmers and for the rest of us is, “How can we know our purpose in life?” Like most important questions in life, this one doesn't have a simple answer. The best answer I have is, “If we live by principles, we will be guided toward purpose.” It simply doesn't make sense that we would be given a purpose that would require us to violate the important principles of life. But this still leaves us with the task of discovering life's important principles.


First, principles are different from values. Different people may have very different values but the important principles of life are true for everyone. Principles are defined by our “common sense” of the nature of things – the sense that we share in common with others. In the 1700s, this common sense was referred to as natural law, as when the Founding Fathers of the U.S. declared certain “truths to be self evident” including the inalienable rights of all to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Principles are self-evident – common sense.


The search for purpose is sort of like a scientific experiment; we first propose or hypothesize a purpose, such as, “I am meant to be a farmer.” We then test our proposition or hypothesis by pursuing our proposed purpose according to the principles relevant to that purpose. For example, if we hypothesize that our purpose is farming, and if we are able to farm without violating any of the important principles of farming, we probably were meant to be a farmer.


When we find our purpose in life, we also will find happiness, since happiness is the ultimate purpose of all human endeavors. Making money is not a purpose for living. Money is always a means of acquiring something else, something to make us happy. So in finding our purpose, we need to focus on what would actually make us happy, not just making money. If we are meant to be wealthy, we won't have to exploit anyone or anything in the process of acquiring wealth, we will do principled things with our wealth, and those things will make us happy. Most of us obviously were not meant to be wealthy, although I believe we were all meant to be happy.


The principles most relevant to any particular purpose depend upon the basic nature of the purpose.  A farm is a living system, which relies on the life within the soil and life upon the soil, including plants, animals, and people. All living systems, including organisms and organizations, function according to a set of common principles, which include holism, diversity, and interdependence.


The whole of a farm is more than a simple collection of individual activities or enterprises; its essence also depends upon the relationships among those activities and enterprises. When the crops within a rotation are changed, or the sequence of crops in a rotation is changed, the farming system as a whole is changed. Crop rotations are effective in maintaining soil fertility or managing pests only when the crops used in rotations are fundamentally different or diverse. Some fix nitrogen, some break pest cycles, some control erosion, and some make money.


When activity or enterprises are integrated so as to compliment each other, their relationships are interdependent or mutually beneficial. The whole is something more than the sum of its parts. The health and regenerative capacity of any living system depends upon interdependent relationships among its diverse components within its inseparable whole. A farm that is managed according to these basic principles is capable of maintaining its productivity indefinitely.


Farming is an intentional activity, carried out with intent of meeting the needs of people, as consumer and producers of food and as members of society. The physical or material needs of people are met through productivity but the social needs of people depend upon relationships. If a particular way of farming creates continual conflicts within families, among neighbors, and between different groups within society, it is not a principled way to farm, no matter how profitable it may seem. All human relationships depend on a common set of core principles, which include trust, kindness, and courage.


Farmers who expect to maintain good relationships with their customers and neighbors must be honest and truthful in their communications, fair and equitable in their dealings, and dependable and responsible in their commitments. Over time, such farmers will build a reputation of trustworthiness and will find that many customers and political allies who place a high value on being able to relate to and deal with someone they know they can trust. At times, however, farmers must be willing to be more than fair and do more than their share, if they are to sustain their relationships. Everyone makes mistakes now and then and everyone experiences occasional misfortunes. Farmers must be respectful and compassionate in their relationships with customers and neighbors, if they expect respect and compassion in return.


It also takes courage to trust and to care. Trusting and kind thoughts are of little real value unless they result in actions. Many farmers have been told they must be independent and competitive if they are to succeed. It takes courage to reject the conventional wisdom of success through independence and to embrace the common sense of happiness through relationships.


If a farm is to be financially viable, it must function according to the fundamental principles of economics, which include value, productivity, and sovereignty. Economic value is determined by scarcity. To prosper economically, farmers must be willing to produce things that are scarce – things their customers cannot readily find elsewhere at lower costs. Today, there is a scarcity of ecological and social integrity, as well as high quality foods.  Productivity results from the use of resources – land, labor, management, and creativity – to produce things that people value.  Farmers on small farms must be able to combine their resources more creatively, since they have fewer resources to combine. Economic value and productivity arise from wise choices. Sovereignty is the freedom to choose. Farmers that give up their sovereignty, through large debts or contractual commitments, sacrifice their ability to create productivity. Farmers need not cherish the principles of economics, but they must respect them. 


Finally, the economic, social, and ecological principles of farming must function in harmony. Economic and ecological relationships must be honest, fair, responsible, respectful, and compassionate. The economic and social aspects of a farm must reflect holism, diversity, and interdependence. And a farm's ecological and social relationships must produce things of value without sacrificing individual sovereignty. Farming systems simply cannot continue to function with conflicting principles. If a farmer is truly pursuing his or her purpose in life, he or she will never be forced to compromise the ecological, social, or economic principles of farming.


Unfortunately, many farmers seem to feel that they must compromise the principles of ecological stewardship and personal relationships in order to make their farms economically viable. However, if farming were their purpose in life, they would not have to compromise their fundamental principles of farming to pursue it. Farmers who view a farm as strictly a business obviously don't see the relevance of the ecological or social principles of farming. But it simply doesn't make sense that a farmer would have to violate principles that they know to be relevant and important in order to pursue their purpose.


The farmers who committed suicide during the 1980s simply didn't understand that they would not have been given a purpose that they were fundamentally incapable of continuing to pursue. The financial failures of their farms were either a reflection of violations of the principles of farming or were an indication that farming no longer served their purpose. With a better understanding of purpose, their decisions still would not have been easy, but suicide would not have been considered a logical alternative. The means by which we fulfill our purpose in life necessarily changes with age and changing circumstances in life. If farming is making you miserable, you probably need to change the way you farm or look elsewhere for your purpose. If farming makes you happy, you are probably meant to be a farmer.

[i] Sustaining People through Agriculture series,” Small Farm Today Magazine, Missouri Farm Publications, Clark, MO. July-August 2006.