A Socratic Rancher 5-3-10
May 3, 2010
I’m not referring here to liveStock at the Sale Barn.
Most of my adult life, I farmed. I produced, delivered, got paid.
It was hard work, though, and I often kid people that farmers and ranchers are the beneficiaries of good publicity in that regard. As I got older and listened to accounts from people in other professions about how hard they worked and the magnitude of risks they took, I quieted down a lot about how hard I worked as a farmer. Certainly, during peak times I worked like a stevedore, but I also had a lot of time in the shop in front of a stove, reading or tinkering. And I had a lot of long winters of deep rest.
But that aside, farming turned out to be the only work I tried in my youth that felt unequivocally good. Being alive is a miracle, no doubt about it, and I responded strongly to the ethic that a person should follow the example set by other good species on earth and behave in a way that contributed something to the greater good. Basically, leave the earth better than you found it. Aim to do that, and everything else will take care of itself.
That didn’t mean it would be all hugs and harmony. No, there would be fights, enemies, gray areas, difficult situations, anxious moments, injustices, and all the other rough edges of life. I’ve confirmed the old saying that if a person goes through life carrying convictions on his or her back, he or she is likely to make friends and enemies in about equal number. There’s a time for cooperation, and a time to make sure you go to bed at night with no footprints on your back.
So I farmed for 40 seasons, an accidentally biblical number, and then I retired. One of my neighbors was fond of saying that the only wealthy farmer or rancher was one who’d just sold out. There’s truth in that. An agricultural operation can make a living, leaving the ground to serve as the retirement program. When the ground is sold, the money can be invested, and the retiring farmer or rancher can start to live off other people’s work.
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It isn’t quick and easy for someone who has worked all their life to switch over to this plan without a few questions, especially in view of how the investment community these days is over-ripe with greed and complexity, and our government has been diluting the currency since August 1973 when President Nixon un-coupled the U.S. dollar from gold.
Because I came up in the ethic of work-deliver-get paid, I believe money is stored work. As a consumer, and even more so as an investor, I’m therefore pretty particular about how my stored work is put to work by other people.
While all of this is a fair picture of my personal philosophy toward economics (which I believe is shared by many retiring from agricultural professions) I have to admit that I have always been faintly fascinated by the life of people on Wall Street, people who live in plush Manhattan apartments, eat at fancy restaurants, spend weekends on a yacht, and go to work in a suit, somehow harvesting money from the economy without doing much of anything of social utility. In other words, people who get paid without producing.
In the future columns, I will offer a series that presents a bit of history, a bit of philosophy, and a bit of practical thinking on the topic an old rancher friend of mine describes this way: “The stock market is like using artificial insemination to breed an artificial cow, and expect a real calf on the ground the next day.”