Thursday, March 30, 2017

Farm Journal October 1994

May I Speak to a Woman, Please?

Bad habits don't develop overnight. They grow slowly, like the stuff in the back of my mother-in-law's refrigerator. It is only when they reach full maturity that the profound depth of possession they have on your actions is revealed to you. Such a revelation has recently come to me, in an odd moment of personal lucidity. Despite my best intentions, I fear I am becoming blindly sexist in some areas of my business. I prefer to do business with women.

Perhaps it's not all my fault. I have been forced by circumstance to deal with women in business frequently. As a consequence of these dealings, I find myself unintentionally biased toward women. It's not that men don't do these jobs well; it's just that I think my odds for satisfaction will be higher dealing with a women.

For instance, I consider my bank loan officer a valuable asset to my business. I started dealing with her because it was easier to get in to see her when most other farmers were waiting outside the president's office in my small bank, on the assumption that their business was far to important to handled by anyone else. I discovered that the time I spent in the bank dropped drastically, transaction detail errors became almost nonexistent, and the speed at which things got done was breathtaking. "Angela" (I won't use Connie's real name to prevent any professional embarrassment), has expert secretarial skills, and types out documents on the spot, saving a return trip. She doesn't try to tell me how to farm (even when she probably could), and follows through with details as only someone to whom details have been delegated all her career can. We don't spend much time swapping old-boy talk or jokes. She and Jan (my wife), are good friends, so either of us can (and more importantly, will) do the banking. Communication is improved since frank financial evaluations don't involve any loss of macho face.

Another example is the ASCS office. Whenever there is a confluence of paperwork, detail, and multiple options, my instinct is to find someone who has raised children. Most of us will require patience and clear language, not a demonstration of high-speed professionalism. Someone who has taught a four-year old to tie shoes may be able to walk me through a simultaneous farm reconstitution, sodbusting, and rotation appeal without making me feel totally uninformed. My experience again bears me out.

As more and more paperwork complicates our business, finding someone who can handle it accurately is a relief. Taking the time to get to know the secretaries, bookkeepers, administrative assistants, and office managers can pay off handsomely. At the elevator, seed company, machinery dealerships, or most any business, these are not just friends, but business shortcuts. Administrative skills – never my strong point (Jan balances her checking account to the penny, mine is accurate to the first two digits) – are increasingly important and valuable to our business, so I go to the people who possess them.

This prejudice carries over into groups. I notice that committees and boards with women will frequently accomplish more, and almost always in a more orderly fashion (i.e. little actual bloodshed). This is due to at least two reasons. 1) Because the woman is usually asked to be secretary, notes - more wonderfully, legible notes - get taken. This means the next meeting does not start back at zero because nobody remembers what happened last time. 2) The presence of a woman can prevent the disintegration of the meeting into a joke-fest of dubious taste. If the job is critical, be sure one member at least is a woman over 55. I think this triggers a flashback memory of our grade school teachers, prompting exemplary behavior from the overgrown boys that populate our profession. These are rules of thumb, of course, and I don't try to explain them. They just work.

My attitude was most altered when Jan replaced my father in our operation, when he went to Florida and forgot to come home one spring. I have had the usual experience with farm workers, and in fairness, got what I was willing to pay for. We were both surprised with the results. Jan makes no assumptions about her skills, and hence will listen, and more amazingly, follow instructions. She asks questions that tend to illuminate the flaws in my plans [I'm not thrilled about this part, but it stops me from doing some stupid things], and we can correct them early on. She cares about our machinery enough to pay attention to gauges, lights, and sounds. Her neatness evens shames me into cleaning out my cab from time to time. The difference in her strengths and mine helps to make the combination more effective.

I can sense the smirks out there already. I do not object to the fact that all of the people I have mentioned were attractive and pleasant, but for middle-aged terminally married dads, cuteness wears off in a hurry in the absence of competence. Due to the nature of self-employment, the relief from competitiveness that working with a woman often permits can be a welcome experience. Guys are not yet trained very well in teamwork, and our industry tends to reward self-centered effort. For men, this can make everything from community planning to harvesting a competition between life-long rivals. 

The future is also clear. If you have trouble doing business with women, your life is may soon get more difficult. Other industries are way ahead of us in using female talent, and these are the people we will be working with more often. I suppose this attitude is violating somebody's civil rights or something, so I just hope when the government sends out an enforcement officer they send a woman. Studies show she is more likely listen to my side of the story. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Let there be dark

Sometime when I was a child, someone sold a lot of nightlights to rural America, a fact obvious when flying over the Midwest on a winter night.   For a few pennies a day we could make the night like day.   The idea was straightforward enough.   Since criminals, especially thieves, and more especially gasoline thieves, were three parts vampire, the presence of photons in large numbers would thwart their evil designs on our gas tanks.   No one ever checked this premise out.  One thing we do know is a thief didn't have to remember to bring a flashlight anymore.   Mostly, I think, yard lights were used just like a Donald Duck nightlight in the hall- to chase away the scary dark.   We may have just added to rather than decreased our fears.

There is nothing inherently wrong with or evil about darkness.   Indeed, night brings with it wonderful gifts.   We are freed from the tyranny of appearances.   My friends, for instance, all say I'm much better looking in dim light.   In the dark, men don't have to hold in their stomachs, and women don't need makeup.   Wonderful things happen in conversation.   Because you can no longer be guided by visual signals and body language between talker and talkee, words are chosen with greater care, inflection and cadence become more potent, and the power of our language increases.   In the process, communication often erupts.   The dark is unparalleled for telling ghost stories, whispering dreams, or revealing feelings.   It provides a comfortable atmosphere for the silences of friends together, moments full of healing and joy.   It rests tired eyes while expanding our vision.  The dark is a natural tranquilizer for frayed nerves, soothing us with a surrealistic world only slightly removed from our sweetest dreams.   Distances expand, sounds and smells emerge to occupy the foreground of our perceptions, and imagination seems as natural and easy as our slow breathing.

Here on the farms of America, like few other places we have this wonderful gift in abundance.  As a special bonus there is an added treasure we can enjoy in the night.   Over our heads, a cast of billions continues the drama of the stars.   Ambient light steals this pleasure from most Americans, and the contempt of the familiar robs too many more of this wondrous enjoyment.   It never fails to dazzle.   It is an experience that endures repetition and defies analysis for people of all ages.

But if you are still unconvinced, try this.   In early autumn, go for a walk in the moonlight around your farm.   Your dog will love it, and you will see your farm as you have never seen it before.   After a few minutes, you will be surprised how bright it seems.   For hardier souls, do this when there is snow cover, or go sledding in the moonlight.   WARNING!  Moonlight is a suspected source of romantic magic.   Be extremely careful who you are with when exposed..

Above all, take your children with you when you explore the dark.   They need to understand what darkness is and is not.   In the end, we may discover that darkness is simply nature's way of telling us to go to bed.