We all need people. Without other people, there would be no market for the large quantities of high-quality food we produce. Without people, it would also be nearly impossible to produce all that food, process it and get it delivered all over the world. We need people, and for many more reasons than just to help us produce and consume our product.

We have all had our share of challenges this past year in the dairy industry. Our family operates a fifth-generation dairy farm, and we are not immune to challenges. Some things are controllable, but in our business, there are so many things that are out of our control. It is the nature of the business we are in.

It seems that in the last few years, labor – or people – is regularly high on our list of challenges. With very low unemployment, a shrinking workforce due to smaller families and a very restrictive immigration policy, everyone – not just those of us in agriculture – is dealing with this people problem.

At our farm, we have always valued people and have tried to treat people right. But like I said, we are not immune to problems, including labor. The last two months of 2018 were very challenging for us as we dealt with significant turnover in a nighttime milking position. Other family members and I shared a night milking shift, along with continuing to get our day jobs done, and we worked Christmas Eve and New Year’s.

During really challenging times, it is easy to get depressed and discouraged, as our focus seems to be locked on the problem at hand. It is easy to feel like a failure and unable to see a better future. There were two significant patterns of thinking that not only kept our farm going during that challenging period, but also helped us be better because of it.

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The first is to be thankful. We all maintain two lists – one is a list of things we are not happy about, and the other is a list of things to be thankful for. Giving life to the not-thankful list feeds depression, frustration and so many other negative thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, forcing our thoughts toward the thankful list gives a completely different outcome. I hear it all the time from the people who refuse to be thankful, despite tough times. “Being thankful doesn’t get my bills paid,” or “Choosing to be thankful won’t get me a better price for my milk or people to milk my cows.”

Being thankful will not all by itself solve all our problems, but it does have the power to keep us happy and in the right frame of mind to see possible solutions to our challenges.

This brings me to the second extremely important thought process or frame of mind. Every time we experience a challenge, failure or something hurtful, it is crucial to believe something good can come from it. We must remain thankful and believe we can overcome the challenge, and we can be better off because of it. And I believe asking a very important question can not only end the challenge, but also has the power to completely change the outcome for the better. It can rewrite the current path of a person, family or business.

It was a question my family and I were continuing to ask ourselves at the end of 2018. Sometimes the answer to this question is easy and can come very quickly, and sometimes it takes more time and effort. And then implementation of the solution can also add some time to ending the challenge, but being able to “see” a better future is still so much better than assuming the present challenge is the new future.

The question is, “What can we do differently so that this never happens again?” I know; it sounds too simple to be life-changing. But asking this question puts people into thinking mode; it pulls on the natural creativity I believe is in all people. It cuts us off from swimming in our agony of the challenge and allows us to ponder a different future. This question has the power to take people places they never thought possible. Our children used to get angry with me because I asked this question so often, but now they usually have gone through the process themselves and have realized many potential solutions, before even bringing the problem to me.

There were times during the labor challenge of 2018 that we thought maybe robots were the answer to this question. But it is important to not always take the first answer to this important question because it may not be the best one. We force ourselves to find a minimum of three answers, and then pick the best one.

Our answer to the labor challenge that many of us are facing will require some investment, but not in technology, or robots, at this time. In 2019 we will be focusing some deliberate and intentional investment in our people. We learned some very important lessons late at night in the parlor with the rest of our team members, and we feel the people have some pretty big advantages over robots.

People can think, solve problems (OK, sometimes cause them) and create new ideas. We are planning some significant investment into growing our people this year, and not just because we know they have more potential in them. It is a win-win. As we become better listeners and become more aware of what is important to our people, we all benefit. It seems like a theory that could pay big dividends when working with consumers, neighbors, family, employees or just about any other relationship.  end mark

Hank Wagner is a dairy farmer in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin.