Want to farm? Here's what you need

Jonathan Knutson looks at some of the traits and attributes that help farmers succeed.

To farm, you have to understand that you are not going to work 40 hours a week, Jonathan Knutson says.
Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC

I once was asked what traits or attributes would-be farmers need most to succeed in their potential occupation. The questioner was making polite conversation and didn't want a lengthy response, so I kept it simple. Two things, I said. First, a connection or "in," usually a relative or close family friend, who provides access to farmland and equipment, which can be virtually impossible to obtain without help. Second, being a clear-headed, practical person who listens to, and learns from, a wide range of experts; there's just too much for one person to learn completely on his or her own.

I still think those are the two biggest characteristics that potential farmers and ranchers need. But there are some other mighty important factors, too. Here's a quick look at some of them.

Not 40 hours a week

Area agriculture is inherently cyclical and seasonal. Depending on the time of year and the job that needs to be done, 18-hour days and 100-hour weeks may be necessary. At other times of the year, 20- or even 10-hour work weeks might suffice. The physical, mental and emotional ability to balance that highly variable workload is essential

Annual farm income varies

When both prices and yields are good, farmers can make a lot of money. When prices or yields or both are poor, farmers can struggle to finish in the black. That leads to widely disparate net farm income — say $90,000 one year and just $10,000 the next year on the same farm. (As an aside, an average of $50,00 for the two years isn't much for a modern family, especially one that's covering all the cost of its own medical coverage.) Dealing with those extremes increases the need for highly disciplined spending and financial planning. I've heard multiple anecdotes (which may have been exaggerated) that variable annual income is particularly difficult for new farm spouses without an ag background.

Even keeled

There's an old saying that major league baseball players need a steady temperament. Their long season, full of success and failures, requires them to avoid getting too high or low. Every time I hear that saying, I think of farmers and ranchers.


Off-farm income

Most farmers, especially ones with small operations, earn some kind of off-farm income. It might be a part-time job or a side business or something else, but they do something to make extra money to pay at least part of their family living expenses. In my experience, there's not much respect from their peers for farmers who refuse to generate off-farm income and then complain bitterly about the unfairness of farming.

Being a good neighbor

Maybe I'm naive on this one, but there seems to be a strong correlation between success in farming and ranching and the willingness to help neighbors who need a little help at especially stressful times — illness, for example. The help that's given usually is returned many fold over time. Sure, there are self-serving schemers who try to suck up free assistance without helping others. But I'd like to think that neighborliness is rewarded and lack of it is ultimately punished.

There are other traits associated with success in farming, but I'm out of space to list them. Please drop me a line with your suggestions and observations about what they are.

Finally, good luck to readers whose 2022 harvest has begun orsoon will. I hope both your yields and prices will be strong. And please don't hesitate to extend a helping hand to a neighbor who needs one.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at

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