I have been thinking lately about the cost of labor. For many farms, a large portion of the labor comes from family. While this can sometimes be cause for disagreement, if everyone is on the same page, it can be a great asset. Beyond the common themes of pride in ownership and known work ethic, it offers some financial flexibility that can bend with the economical swings in farming. As an owner, my income can be less in a down year to keep my farm going. If I have to pay outside labor, that number is fixed (or even worse, increasing) and can have a major impact on the farm’s bottom line. Farm owners get paid last.
I am opening a can of worms here, I know. I am certainly no economist either. I just know firsthand this is the reality so many dairy farmers face. It is not easy to live on an unstable income. How do you plan for what you cannot predict? There is irony in watching your grocery budget when you are a farmer filling the food supply chain. There are certainly good years, and even with the high input costs right now, many farmers do have more breathing room than they have in the recent past because of current milk prices. Still, most are worried about the next downturn.
It is so interesting to see how growing up on a farm income shapes your outlook and perhaps personality, too. A few years ago, I built a dining room table for our home. I used (what was then cheap) framing lumber and some stain to make my own version of an expensive design I saw in a catalog. It took a lot of sweat, sanding, and time, but it turned out better than I had hoped. I found myself explaining to my family and friends how much money I saved, but I failed to tell them about the many hours I spent building it. That time was the true value. We pay ourselves last.
Over the last few weeks, I have been in one of our plants for a project involving new equipment. While the programmers are busy with the automation, I have found things to keep me busy. Watching people work is a form of torture to me, so I make myself useful wherever I find an opportunity. This serves many purposes! It keeps me warm in the cooler section, it gets things done for our plant, and I have found that it encourages others to do the same. If someone sees me standing around, this can be taken as permission to do the same. That is not the example I want to set. When the project has needs I cannot complete, I have been clearing bottles in the blow mold room, loading trays in the washer, gathering trash at the compactor, and more. I always want to bring our farmer owners value; they get paid last.
When people would hear that we had six kids in our family, they often teased, “Of course, you need free child labor!” All of us are adults now and are proud of our upbringing. Yes, my parents raised us as responsible contributors to the family farm from a young age. We did not receive a paycheck. We had our needs met and sometimes even had a little spending money, too. We knew it was not guaranteed, yet our standards and our efforts never wavered. Off the farm, I now earn a salary. I know how incredibly fortunate I am to earn a steady income. I will never take it for granted. I know what it is like to get paid last.
Erin Massey is the product development manager at Prairie Farms, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Edwardsville, Illinois. She is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the development process, from concept to commercialization. Erin grew up on a Florida dairy farm and has a deep-rooted passion to invigorate the dairy industry. Erin earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida. Her personal mantra is "Be Bold."