When it comes to boookkeeping, farm couples need to share information
March 17, 2017
Every March, when I finally get around to filing my taxes, I always make myself promise to keep better records for the next year. Something in my scatter-brained, fun-loving personality detests taking care of all the little details until the very last minute. However, after talking to farmer Marylyn Bell, I'm determined to not only keep good records, but to make sure those records are accessible to my husband in case of an emergency.
Marylyn Bell learned that lesson after a terrible tragedy, some miraculous planning from her husband and a dishonest fertilizer salesman.
Marylyn and her husband Bryon farmed and ranched near Lincoln, Kan. They raised livestock and irrigated and non-irrigated crops together. Bryon did all the farm recordkeeping alone.
Their world was turned upside down one day in August when Bryon and the couple's 5-year-old son were involved in a deadly car accident just two miles from their country home. The 5-year-old survived, Bryon didn't.
Suddenly, Marylyn was left to take care of all the farm business — something she had never done before. Thankfully though, Bryon had made sure that he caught Marylyn up to date on all the farm information every year — she knew about things like bills, farm leases, land locations, crops etc. He had last updated Marylyn just three weeks before his death. Bryon's wise communication saved her hours of added heartache and stress.
One of Marylyn's favorite examples of the need-to-know principle involves a shady (not in business anymore) fertilizer salesman. The night before Bryon's death, he was busy in his home office. Marylyn fixed dinner like usual, and called him to the kitchen for supper.
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"I had to call him numerous times — much more than usual," Marylyn said, "In fact it was at least 45 minutes before he came to the table."
When Bryon did finally come for supper that night, he mentioned that all the farm records were caught up and all the bills were paid, except for a check for fertilizer that he wanted Marylyn to mail the next morning. He explained to her that this year he had bought fertilizer from a different than normal company and that the check was to the new company.
Marylyn mailed the check the next morning and didn't think about fertilizer again until about 10 days after Bryon's death when she got a $3,500 bill in the mail from the farm's former fertilizer company.
"I took about a week to think about it, but the longer I thought about it, the more I became convinced that we didn't owe this company any money," Marylyn said.
So, armed with the info her husband had given her about the new fertilizer company, Marylyn wrote out a page-long list of questions to ask the owner of the old fertilizer company. She found the owner of the old company in his office and asked him for details about the bill — things like when the fertilizer was applied, who applied it and what field it was applied in? The owner, knowing he was caught, couldn't answer any of Marylyn's questions, so he eventually assured her the bill must have been some kind of computer error.
"Grieving widows are a prime target for scammers," Marylyn said. "If I hadn't known about the new fertilizer company my husband was using I would have just paid that bill and been out $3,500."
Today, Marylyn speaks to Women in Agriculture and other groups across Kansas to spread the message of the importance of shared record keeping in a farm marriage. "Even if the husband keeps all the records, the wife needs to know how to access all of that information," Marylyn said. "And it goes the other way too, husbands need to know how to get the information if the wife is the sole bookkeeper and farm manager." ❖