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Idaho Enterprise

Redefining Retirement in Ranching

Jun 12, 2024 10:29AM ● By Allison Eliason

After decades of work, most adults look forward to the golden retirement years as a time of adventure, fun, relaxing and simply time spent doing whatever they want to do.  But there are a fair few that look at retirement with just the opposite perspective.  They see it as the end of the road, their final act and something to avoid. I don't know if there are statistics on these bunch of folks, but I’d bet money that most of them are farmers and ranchers.

Seeing an old rancher running equipment, working cattle or even saddling up his horse is not an uncommon sight.  But the novel concept of someone at such an advanced age working such physically demanding and occasionally dangerous work brings with it unsolicited opinions and advice of what is the appropriate time to retire.

The truth is, farmers and ranchers are a breed of people that just might not know how to retire.  

As odd as it sounds, their life of hard work isn’t always work to them.  Sure it pays the bills, brings on countless aches and pains, and is constantly going awry like ordinary jobs do.  But these sort of people thrive on hard work, overcoming problems and pushing their tired bodies just one more minute.  In fact, most of them claim that the minute they quit working, they just as well die because their life will be over anyway.

In a study done by Purdue University, researchers found several interesting, yet unsurprising facts about retiring ranchers. The average of a rancher has gone up to 58.  The average age of a farmer or rancher transitioning into retirement is 75 years old.  Of those ranchers retiring, only 37% actually want to retire, with 63% feeling forced or unready to retire.  In addition, farmers and ranchers are more likely to be financially prepared for retirement than they are emotionally or mentally.  In essence, aging producers are finding it difficult to step away from their operations, largely because their hearts and minds aren’t ready to say goodbye.

At the heart of the matter is a single question- why can’t farmers and ranchers let go?

For most, though, the answer lies in the fact that their work is less of a job and more of a way of life that they just can’t walk away from.  Their daily living is so intertwined with the goings on of the ranch work, it is nearly impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  They step foot out their front door and the work day begins, literally living on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

They usually don’t have extra hobbies or weekend activities because their days are already filled with that sort of fun.  They ride 4 wheelers on the mountain sides checking water, ride horses across the range moving cattle, and work in equipment that their inner boy still squeals with delight at.  They don’t have to escape to the countryside from their stuffy office because that already is their office.  Their work allows them to work with their hands, use their mind, solve problems, and do anything but the same mundane work or and over.  Through their work they travel the country, become involved in community affairs, but also live a humbling life of faith.

Let’s be honest, who would ever want to walk away from that?

In the agriculture industry, there needs to be a sort of mind shift of what retirement is for an old farmer or rancher in multiple ways, principally that retiring from work doesn’t mean that they still can’t be involved in their operations.  

Often in their minds retirement means that they can no longer do the work, they aren’t wanted or needed, which is why they cling on to their work with a vice-like grip.  Their identity is so wrapped up in being the boss, the decision maker, the head honcho, the chief, and so on.  It becomes a bittersweet day when even the bills don’t come in their name anymore.  However, many facets of the business side of their operation will go down far smoother if they begin turning things over to the next generation earlier, rather than later.

But what if they could see that their retirement meant passing on a legacy?  What if they saw their passing on the reins as a fulfillment of all their days teaching, mentoring and training up the next generations?  And that they weren’t only successful in preparing them and bringing them up, but that they also get to see the dividends of that life long investment?

Farming and ranching is full of seasons.  Seasons of planting, seasons of growing, and then seasons of harvesting.  In ranch life, that final season of harvesting seems to be one that is difficult to move into and enjoy because old timers just don’t know when or how to do it.  While, there truly is so much to be proud of when they look back to what they accomplished in their growing season on their operations, the true depth of their accomplishment will come when they see the work they have done in raising up the next generations to continue their legacy.

So maybe it's time we rethink retirement for farmers and ranchers and identify it less as them walking away from their life's work, but more about them passing on their heritage.  I don’t claim in any way to have all the answers or any, really.  But from where I sit I can see a number of great men that are afraid of what it means to take a step back.  I only wish I could help them see and take pride in a job well done before it can unravel because they were unwilling to finally turn things over.     

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