Pandemic Perspectives: Year in Review

It has been over a year since the beginning of the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After 175 webcasts, a three-day face-to-face conference for young farmers and ranchers was a breath of fresh air! Watching the CNBC business channel during my first hotel stay in over a year was an experience similar to “Rip Van Winkle.” I was surprised to see the value of bitcoin on the scroll at the bottom of the screen right next to the Dow Jones futures. Who could have imagined that one year ago?

Moving to the conference, it was amazing how people stayed after meals to visit one another. It was apparent that the herd instinct and the desire to connect is still very much alive and well. The young farmers shared how they enjoyed spending more time with their children and families while being socially distant. One can only hope that as a society that we do not go back to over scheduling our own and our children’s lives. Hopefully, this past year has been a lesson learned in an attempt to balance business and family time.

The sponsoring organization invited their lenders to engage with the customers and prospects. Even the Board of Directors interacted during the sessions and shared their knowledge, wisdom, and institutional memory with the aspiring agriculturalists. The next generation of lenders is now on board as the transition of human resources is in the seventh inning, analogous to a baseball game. The sponsoring organization had 14 lenders and other staff retiring in the next 90 days. Often a black swan event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, requires one to reevaluate life values and accelerates the decision-making process.

One individual, who was retiring after 34 years, indicated that I was the “book ends” of his career. In his first three months of employment, he enrolled in one of the agricultural banking schools where I taught. At the other end of the spectrum, this conference was three months to the day that he planned to retire. He indicated that not only did he benefit from the education regarding financial ratios and business management, but also the nonfinancial factors, economic trends, and nuggets of wisdom that I shared from my travels and engagement with the agriculture industry.

We found that the hotel staff were energized by our return. This conference was the last group prior to the shutdown and the first group back. It was interesting to watch the staff sneak in to listen to the economic, business, and financial tips that were being bestowed to the group. One staff member indicated that if she was allowed to take notes that she would have had five pages!

Looking back on the past year, I could see how the pandemic has influenced the young farmers’ mindset. They fully understood why having working capital of 20 to 25 percent of expenses is important because of business and market disruptions. No one questioned why four to eight months of family living expenses is needed for household liquidity. In this group of producers, 25 percent of the couples had one partner lose a job during the pandemic.

These young farmers understood the importance of written goals for the business. Goal setting is critical in today's world where one must manage the controllable variables and manage around the uncontrollable variables amid the distractive chatter on mainstream and social media. This best practice was reinforced by the lenders in attendance. When they completed the business IQ assessment on the participants that they sponsored, written goals were listed by the lenders as the number one aspect for improving communication and understanding the customers’ needs.

When surveyed, 75 percent of the young farmers have been on six to ten educational webcasts over the past year. The group preferred short, interactive, and conversational webcasts using questions and answers with the presenters. Many of the young producers liked the idea of these educational events from “cyberville” because it saves time and travel expenses. However, one could quickly see face-to-face events with engagement and interaction will still be essential for the future.

Concerning the subject matter, this group valued business tips for operating niche and value-added businesses. As many as two-thirds of the participants were involved in these types of enterprises.

Family business transition was a high priority for the group. Many of the participants were frustrated that the older generation would not give up the financial and business management reins. This type of conflict led to three of the couples in attendance striking out on their own. While this was painful in the short run, it was probably for the best in the long run. The young producers fully understood that the generous government stimulus checks will most likely impact them later in life in the form of higher capital gains tax rates, higher local, state, and federal taxes, and possibly a reduction of the estate tax exclusion.

Many in the group reported challenges in attracting and retaining quality labor, particularly with the extension of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. Simplification of the business model and, in some cases, automation can be a cure for this dilemma.

As we emerge from the pandemic hiatus, reflection can be a great stimulus to charting a pathway for business, family, and personal success. As Dr. Mike Hester, Pastoral Counselor, stated in his Sunday devotional overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains of the venue, “One must take time to meditate, shut down the mind, circumvent burnout, and restore the emotional order.” He also stated that “pandemic depression” is a new mental illness that can be overcome with a good support network and finding meaning in the simple things in life. Reach out to others in need or those who have been isolated because it will regenerate your zest for life. Be safe during spring field work and calving season.

Enjoy agriculture, rural life, and all it provides in the meaning of life!