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Quitting the Ranch – A Tragic Account of Failure in Succession

A young friend of mine died the other day. To be honest, “died” doesn’t seem like quite the right word, probably because it’s not. On a beautiful fall day, my friend Donny picked up a gun and killed himself. Rest in peace, Donny.

When it comes to situations like this, it seems we like to publicly comfort each other by saying things along the lines of… “Well, I guess we’ll never really know why he did it…”. Later on, we talk in hushed tones about those bastards at the bank, or the difficulty of the cattle markets, or how Donny never really got along with his old man, or how he never quite got over the death of his first wife, or how the damn government just hounded him, the State and the Feds attaching tax liens to everything he owned.

And you know what? All of those things are true. Donny had some troubles. But I don’t think that’s why Donny packed it in. That’s not why Donny decided to leave his young wife and kids alone here on this earth. I believe there were some underlying issues that Donny just couldn’t overcome. In fact, never mind overcoming those issues, Donny couldn’t even see them. Bottom line, Donny reached the point where he just couldn’t stand the ongoing, grinding pain of not being successful. And likely as not, as he looked forward, there was the obvious reality that he could never, ever find a way to find success in the future. And that great sadness and frustration is what (I suspect) Donny was trying to sort out as he picked up that revolver.

So, what the heck does “success” have to do with anything? What does that word even mean? And what would it have looked like? Donny had a nice home, a couple of kids and a wife who thought he was funny and fun. They worked together on the ranch, trying to carve out a business and a life, manage the land, sell enough calves to pay for groceries and gas. And if all of that is true, doesn’t it make you wonder a bit what real success might look like? More than that, if the life Donny was living didn’t look enough like success, what was the missing piece?

Donny’s dad had some money. Actually, a lot of money. And while he and I had talked about the ranching business a few times, his other family business was always couched in sort of opaque terms. By the time Donny’s dad had stacked up what seemed like a tremendous treasure, Donny had spent a year or two staying busy doing what plenty of other rural kids want so deeply to do: cowboy work. And so, when old dad decided to retire and move to greener pastures, Donny knew just what they should do: buy a ranch and become ranchers. Dad agreed, and the die was cast. They moved to the country, and Dad took up residence in the big house. Donny began calling himself by the title of Ranch Manager, spending his time drifting from auction to auction, putting together a cow herd and wearing out pickup trucks. Back at the ranch, Donny chased elk on horseback, patched bad fences and searched for companionship. These were the kind of tasks that seemed to have no end. When I visited with Donny he was always busy, although truthfully, I never developed much of an understanding of what the ranch business model looked like.

Maybe that’s because there wasn’t a “model” so much as there was an idea, a dream, a vision involving nice cows grazing on lush pastures, good horses, barns full of hay, and a happy family. Donny’s dad had set him up, putting him in a position to thrive: “Here’s the ranch, now get to running it.”

Turns out, the setup wasn’t quite as good as it appeared.

How Do We Set Our Children Up for Success?

Everyone wants their children to be successful. In agriculture – as in other industries – success is a complicated, multi-faceted thing. That said, success in ranching is largely focused on economic progress. Profit is important. Clearly, if you are going backward in business, piling up debt, spending down the equity, you cannot be truly successful. And so, for Donny, the situation probably looked pretty clear: the ranch was going broke and the future looked increasingly glum. Donny’s solution was to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them.

The clear fact here is that Donny had little chance of being successful. He had had little or no training or guidance related to business. His employment in ranching was confined to entry level, hired-man cowboy work. Those technical skills are important, of course, but they have little to do with running a successful business. And let’s face it, there are only two kinds of ranches: businesses and non-businesses. If the next generation of management is to be judged according to their success as a business, the current generation had better be supplying the youngsters with the tools, training and experience they need to be successful in economics and business. Clearly, tossing a few million dollars’ worth of land and livestock at an untrained (if eager) young person with the only instruction being to “go out and run the ranch” is a clear path toward failure. In Donny’s case, toward something even worse.

Parents, take heed. Send your kids out to work at successful, progressive companies. Send them for training. Have them take business courses (and, I believe, plenty of other courses too). Talk with them about the structure of the ranch business, how things work (or maybe why they don’t). Encourage them to think about all kinds of enterprises, but insist that they present you with at least a modest business plan before giving your support. And for goodness sake, present an example for your kids to follow: if you are running a business, act like it.

I’ll miss my friend Donny. His short life didn’t have to end up this way. But clearly, he saw no other way out.

Rest In Peace, Donny.

A note to the reader: Many, many changes were applied to the details of this story to protect “Donny’s” family.

On Pasture will be sharing more resources to help you and the next generation be the successes that you can be. We welcome your ideas and suggestions.

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