A Socratic Rancher 5-31-10 | TheFencePost.com

A Socratic Rancher 5-31-10

J.C. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

As Ed, the old rancher said, “It ain’t a good bet that somebody else will make money for you.” Ed is correct in the ag business. I never had anyone come on to my place, grow a crop, harvest it, and then write me a check for it.

But not everyone wants to work hard their entire life.

Some people do, and it works for them but it doesn’t for me. I don’t want to work any more and I’m finally coming clean to admit it. After 42 years, I’m simply tired. For a few years after I retired, I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t want to work anymore. I sometimes told people I was working when I was reading a book, camping, or off on a hike. The work ethic in the ag business is so strong that it lingers in an old farmer or rancher long after it has actually expired. I know a few old ranchers, like Ed, who really do work in their old age and have no intention of retiring. But I finally admitted to everyone, including myself, that I was done farming.

I’ve spoken with others in my situation in other professions, and it isn’t uncommon. Some say, “It just isn’t fun any more.” In other cases there are genuine physical limitations. For me, farming was always fun. I enjoyed the process of working with the ground and as I have said many times, it is the only work I’ve done in my life about which I feel unconditionally good. But farming and ranching have a way of becoming one’s entire life. It’s a profession that can also be one’s hobby and avocation, if not one’s wife, family and religion.

My desire to quit had more to do with wanting time for a contemplative stretch before passing away, a time to enjoy the earth without always thinking about ways to work with it, a time to reflect on the mystery of life rather than constantly solving problems. So I needed to find ways to live off my savings (what I like to call my “stored work”), and the earnings therefrom, which means I’d be living off the work of others. It’s not easy to reconcile Ed’s comment, the one that led off this article, with the need to live off the work of others.

Because those of us in ag have been producers all our life, maybe we are entitled to put our stored work in a place where we live off the work of others for a while, since it’s probably true that much of the population has lived off of us for various stretches of time. I would hope that we’ve produced more than we’ve consumed in a lifetime of farming, on balance, and thus have a little coming our way. I accepted that rationale for investing in the stock market, and have tried to put it together with a mostly frugal lifestyle in retirement, common sense, and a clear understanding what sort of investor is best.

With the recent gyrations in the stock market, fueled by memories of the failure of Bear Stearns and then Lehman Brothers, European concerns, and flash crashes, the stock market looks like a place run by professionals for the benefit of professionals. When I mentioned this to my old rancher friend, Ed, he recalled using the futures market (a long time ago) to hedge some fat cattle, and buying an internet stock hyped by his brother in law.

“@#$! speculators run the show,” he said. “Gored my ox.”

Ed may be right. The Big Board and the Commodity Floors may be so dominated by the speculators that old farmers and ranchers are the ones whose ox will get gored. In my next piece, I’ll define the types of investors and players in the stock market, and describe the kind of investor I decided to be. And how my ox is doing.