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0509 PD: Don’t autopilot; live to write your own Miracle on the Farm

Ben Yale Published on 13 March 2009

A miracle happened on the Hudson this year.

The story is simple. A plane leaves LaGuardia in New York City for Charlotte, North Carolina. A flock of birds flies in front of the plane, the birds are sucked into the engines, and they knock out both of them. Without power to fly the plane, the pilot no longer had the option of saving all at once all three things affected – the trip, the plane, and the people. The pilot first tries to direct his powerless plane back to an airport to save plane and passengers. When that is no longer possible he does not risk the people with a remote chance of saving the plane, but sees the Hudson River as the last place he can go to save the passengers and crew, at the expense of the plane. He does so successfully. Though the plane sinks, no one is killed.

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Dairy farms in full flight have received their own one-two punch. First, hit with half a milk check, then with a double feed bill. They are now flying without economic power, and absent an early restarting of the economy, they will have to land somewhere. If they do not land, they will crash. Some will land saving the business plan, farm and family. Some might save assets and the family. Some just save the family. What should not happen are those who risk, and lose, everything in a futile effort to go where they can no longer go, hoping against hope that miraculously they can reach a destination with no power in their engines. Their crash will be as horrible as it will be inevitable. We want no part of that.

As fate turns out, the pilot of that plane was Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, a pilot who not only was trained in powerless flight but taught other pilots how to do the same. This was no place for autopilot. It has not been trained to land in the river. But the teacher who used the program has.

Our society is big on winners. Winning is generates headlines for news and sports. Everyday we hear the winning scores from the night before, the person winning this or that award, the winning lottery number. Go to Amazon and look up books on success and winning. There are thousands of them: How to be successful in this or that, how to overcome this, how to be a winner! But look up books on how to handle losing and you will find an empty shelf. Everyone at the coffee shop can tell you how to make an extra buck. No one tells you how to succeed by losing the buck.

So it is with dairy farming. All of the training is geared to manage our herd, our people and ourselves to get one more pound of milk, handle one more cow, save a cow for one more lactation and gain that extra buck. The result is a profit and good life for ourselves and our family, our church and our community. We have been trained well to win and to enjoy winning, but no one has consciously been trained to operate while losing money or during ruinous times.

Here is the reality. This economic downturn (depression, recession, wreck, it makes no difference the name) is serious. More serious than anything any of us have ever experienced. Though we know neither the depth nor the length of this period of economic loss, we do know what the result will be. At its end, there will be fewer dairymen than at its start. That is not a good thing, but it simply is the reality. No one, not even the government, can ensure that every farm comes out of this crisis with their business plan intact, but we can certainly ensure that every farmer and his or her family survives this crisis. The difference is important.

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It is not just that no one trains us for these crises, but that the crisis itself brings more burden than just a loss of cash flow. It overwhelms not just the checkbook, but the mind. It shuts down our rationality. We go into autopilot.

In the early 1980s, agriculture in general went through a massive reorganization of farmers and farms. I witnessed it first-hand working with farmers trying to survive. I saw success, but I also witnessed bizarre and irrational behavior by those in the midst of the storm. While most stayed on the farm or successfully made the transition from farm to other occupations, not every situation turn out so well. Once upstanding citizens were charged and convicted of fraud and theft. Families broke apart. Wealth was squandered. And there was death. At the time, I only could wonder what was happening. In hindsight, I see something else.

In those cases where there was the loss of reputation, wealth, or even life, there was a powerless individual frantically and irrationally still trying to save the trip and the plane at full risk to the passenger. Flying a powerless operation in an irrational way brought the awful. But the personal tragedy was avoidable.

Malcom Gladwell in Blink!, a book I highly recommend, discusses the ability of the mind to quickly and accurately make decisions. In skilled hands, this “gut” response made in a blink (thus the name), can be more accurate than months of meticulous research by experts. On the other hand, the gut reaction can be irrational. He uses the example of police officers in a high-speed car to illustrate how autopilot behavior can result in good cops doing bad things.

A high-speed car chase causes the officer to be more and more focused on the travel. Consideration of other factors and conditions stop. The chase overwhelms the officer to the point he no longer thinks rationally. His gut or autopilot is now running.

In dairy today, the economic challenge, like the high-speed chase, deprives us of the ability to be rational. We are on autopilot. Decisions we never would have even dreamed of in normal times and fully in control and full flight, are maddeningly made in the freefall. Now that we are in the middle of this unfolding event, its sheer magnitude overpowers and numbs the brain’s ability to think and, in its place, empowers our gut, our baser instincts. One-by-one, day-by-day, decision-by-decision the gut replaces the brain until we are landing a powerless plane entirely by a poorly programmed autopilot.

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In this ever-driven desire to win to save the family, to save the family farm, to save the business plan, to be a winner, this world of economic depression is a world we have never known. With feed costs exceeding the value of milk, no matter how much other costs we cut, profits elude us. We cannot stop the drain. So much money is lost that unless the economy turns around soon, it threatens to suck away all that we own, worked for and cherished. Our natural response is to fight this drain, but as the struggle unfolds, our focus narrows and our rationality disappears. It is in this moment that good people start doing stupid, bad and even criminal things. Things that when viewed after the struggle is over will be deemed unnecessary. Then it will be too late.

The economic morass provides the need for trained flying but at the same time takes it away. There lies the real danger of this economic mess – good people who need to be using all of their knowledge and abilities to hand-land their families and farms into a difficult place are involuntarily operating by an autopilot “flying” a path that does not exist. Only tragedy can result.

Now that we are in this powerless flight, what do we do? Simple, add co-pilots from one or all of four categories. With others the burden is shared, the stress is rationally reduced, the check to stupidity put in place.

1. The first companion is faith in God. A reliance on a higher being brings a better sense of reality. For his book, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save your Life, Ben Sherwood researched the stories of those who survived the unimaginable from the Holocaust to freak accidents. He notes in that book that a common characteristic of survivors is their faith. The more faith, the greater the survival.

2. The next group of co-pilots are your family and business partners. Rather than keeping them in the dark and away from any chance of helping, invite them into the cockpit so that they can help direct during this crisis. Let them tell you what they see and think. Consider their views. Though it is likely that one or more persons may be impaired mentally during the crisis, it is less likely that all of them would be. More eyes, though even narrowly focused, can still see more than one pair. The tunnel vision characteristic of human autopilot is broadened.

3. The third group of co-pilots includes the professionals that you rely on – your accountant, insurance agent, veterinarian, nutritionist, business manager, and of course your attorney. Keeping them up to date, routinely, even weekly, provides the opportunity for outsiders to see problems before they mature into crises or disaster. Their professional perspective gives them a view that you do not have and provides additional information needed to make decisions.

4. The fourth group includes your friends and relatives that have nothing to do with your farm or business. Maintaining social ties and communication outside of the farming operation allows the stress of the business to back off and allow rationality to resume. The worst thing you can do in times like these is to shut off communication with the outside world.

First and finally, you must firmly understand what is most important in this life – life, that of your family, your friends and yourself. What made Sully the hero of the Miracle on the Hudson was he quickly chose to save the most important at the full expense of everything else. The real heroes of this terrible economy will not be measured by how big a farm they had at the end, or having a farm. No, the heroes will be those who fought the urge to abandon intelligent thought, reached out to all that could help, and landed them and their family safely. The landing site may not be the intended one, but lives are saved. Those will be the true miracles on the farm. PD

Ben Yale
Attorney at
Yale Law Office

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