Sunday, 9 November 2014

Letter to my infant son: Don’t become a farmer

Dear son,

This is a hard letter to write.  You see, this is the letter where I admit that I was wrong.   I am going to spend the next 18 years telling you that I know what I am doing.  I am going to say that you should listen to my advice.  Yet here you are, barely 4 months old, and I am telling you that I was wrong.

I was wrong to become a farmer.

Lots of wise friends told me not to do it, I even went against what my father believed I should do.  Your granddad is a former farmer you see, but I thought I knew better.  I thought they were telling me not to do it because of the work involved, the hours.  I thought they were advising me against the cycle of taking all of your time and money each year and putting it on the roulette wheel of price and weather, and praying that both come up together.   Not me!  I thought I could handle the work, the hours I could deal with, and maybe a new business model would take me out of the pure commodity game that is just a race to the bottom.  I figured that it would be satisfying to raise animals and grow things in a way that I could be proud to show the world, that at the end of the day I would feel tired but rewarded.

But none of my sage advisers told me the fundamental truth: as a farmer, you are a government worker, and an unpaid one at that.  If they had, perhaps I would have avoided this mistake.

It starts out easily enough, a registration form here, another one there.  After all, to get your business up and running you must make sure you have all your paperwork ducks in a row.  But it soon spirals out of control, and in no time at all you are spending hours over a form trying to understand what this new government department wants from you, while your farm chores sit undone outside the window.  I have seen them all, son, from the reasonable forms relating to firearms to the ones asking me to show evidence of our working dog’s training program.  I had no idea the Australia Taxation Office employed dog training experts, but you learn something new every day when you work for the government.

In the last year alone I have dealt with bureaucrats from no less than 8 government departments at local, State and Federal level.  I have spent countless hours filling out forms, trying to do things online to make them easier (it doesn’t), and responding to the inane requests.

“Show that you have a reasonable expectation of profit.”
“Please provide your business plan, last 3 years’ tax returns and financial statements.”
“How is your livestock business different from a hobby farm?”

Lucky your dear Dad is a former accountant and he can field this sort of thing, but I feel sorry for all of the kids the politicians try to encourage into agriculture, walking them right into the clammy claws of the bureaucracy.  The poor kids haven’t got a hope in hell, but I guess it makes for a good soundbite on the TV.

Farming isn’t easy, and some days feel harder than others.  Burying an animal that died because of something you did (or didn’t do) feels like the worst feeling in the world, but there are days where you can feel genuine pride at what you have grown and achieved.  Acting as a steward of the land is one of life’s noblest callings.  Unfortunately those good days are fewer and fewer as your volunteer job looking after the bureaucrats takes over your working life.  And at the end of the year, if you were lucky enough to snatch enough time on the farm to make a profit, your taxes will pay their salaries.

Now don’t take this letter to mean that I regret my decision to become a farmer.  The only time you should regret a decision, even a wrong one, is if when you can’t learn anything from it.  And too often that just means you aren’t looking hard enough.  No, I don’t regret it, it is my choice and I’ll be damned if I will let the bureaucratic monolith make me abandon it.

But I will leave you with this bit of advice my son: when you grow up, don’t do what I did and ignore your dear old Dad.  Don’t become a farmer.  Go get a job with the Australian Taxation Office.  Yes you will lose your soul, spending your remaining days filling out endless reams of paperwork.  But at least you will be getting paid for it.

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