Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File Photo)

RANCHING MUSINGS: Isolation and connectivity offered on the ranch

Traditional isolation for longer periods of time used to be the hallmark of farming lifestyle

Recently, I reviewed some articles in a farm business magazine from a year ago which looked at the loss of young people from the recruiting pool for replacing existing farmers.

Last year there was a lot written about how few new farmers are actually being recruited, in part due to lifestyle expectations of younger generations. And the retiring group of us (boomers), have some expectations of our own about an enjoyable retirement.

My thoughts go to two places.

The first place is the viability of the farming/ranching enterprise and the cost of caring for the land and its “improvements.”

The second place my thoughts turn is to the “loneliness” in the digital world where connection via the Internet should relieve the feeling of being alone.

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First, then, the economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 has meant that food security means renovating the food system to take out the vulnerable parts or have alternatives that we can rely on for the production and distribution of food.

This issue is an economic and financial one. Can we produce food and market it at a cost people can afford? This challenges the business side of farming.

What new technology can we afford, and can we devote the time to staying current with changes in technology (for direct marketing and for monitoring harvest readiness, for instance)? If one is producing finished beef, can one cover the cost of ultrasound testing for adequate fat levels in the animals’ body ?

Then there is the continual assessment of the genetics of the cattle herd which determines the suitability of the herd to the affordable feed: base feed and supplements. All of these costs raises the cost of production.

Add to this challenge the time and money needed to invest in risk assessment. What will we do if the forage for cattle is unharvestable due to flooding or if it does not grow in a droughty year.

For thirty years that I know of, governments and producer groups have not been able to design an ongoing program for disaster relief. Insurance seems always to be too expensive or it doesn’t pay out enough to be able to cover the cost of replacing the lost crop.

Today’s farmers must be good at running the numbers and keeping up on the development of the analytic tools and spend the time applying them.

A farmer or rancher then, in order to be in the business without needing outside income to supplement the cost of production, must spend a lot of time at the desk figuring out the business and its risks and developing mitigation strategies.

Perhaps the more important place my thoughts have run to is the question of how we can keep young people on the farm and not have them unhappy because of a lack of sufficient connection with other people.

The Internet can keep us in touch with many people easily. However, does this digital connection meet our human psychological need? We are social beings and need to have the personal contact.

Social distancing has challenged us during this pandemic. I assert that there is nothing like the warm human contact between us that stimulates a sense of well-being. Being two meters apart outside just doesn’t cut it.

If the pandemic goes away or recedes to where we can restore our closeness we may avoid deepening the crisis of recruitment of young people on ranches and farms.

Traditional isolation for longer periods of time used to be the hallmark of farming lifestyle.

Not so anymore. Human contact, not just digital contact, is still, in my view, a mark of our humanity.

This problem of needing to isolate to slow down transmission is an opportunity farms and ranches can offer young people who are not wanting to interact with the masses: to be a part of a small social bubble on the land.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.

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