When I interview farmers and ranchers and ask them to tell me about their operations, the first thing many of them say is that they are the third or fourth or fifth generation on their farm, whatever the number may be.

They say that because they are proud to be continuing their family legacy of farming. If they are the fourth generation, their children are the fifth. How cool is it to be so connected to your ancestors?

Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht

I forget, sometimes, about the impact of those generations that came before. Making it to the third or fourth or fifth generation means the first and second generations got things going on the right foot.

My husband’s grandfather died a couple weeks ago. He was the first generation on the farm we live on, having sold a different farm and moved here in the 1960s.

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My daughters don’t have a lot of memories of the man they called “Big Papa” outside of him being an old man who lived with their great aunt. He was almost 90 when our older daughter was born and had gone to live with his daughter when the ravages of age and dementia made living on the farm unsafe.

So when we told our girls that he had passed on, we talked about the fact that he built the house we lived in and the barns we use every day and that he farmed the fields and grazed cattle in the pastures as we still do.

His legacy is so much more than that, though. He was a World War II veteran who came back after his service to lead a quiet life focused on his Christian faith and his love of farming and his family. He helped start a church that still houses a vibrant congregation and raised a family that now includes an ever-increasing number of great-grandchildren.

On the farm, he didn’t just put up some buildings and pass on some land. He was the one who taught my father-in-law and my husband everything he knew about how to farm. Their early lessons at driving tractors or caring for cattle came from him. Every piece of knowledge they’ve gained in the intervening years built up from a base that he gave them.

My own grandfather was the second generation on the farm on which I was raised. He taught and guided his son and his grandchildren about the ways of farming and life. Grandpa died five years ago. My dad has continued the operation; though we’re not physically on that farm, my brother and I both work in agriculture. Without the influence of the generations before us, our paths likely would have been much different.

When you lose a mentor on the farm, you’re often also saying goodbye to a parent or a grandparent. That can make the loss even harder. But we all can be thankful for what they gave to us.

Farming and ranching, more than other occupations, are part of a family’s legacy. We are connected to the people who worked the land before we did, even if we never got to meet them.

If you are lucky enough to still have the earlier generations around on your farm or ranch, enjoy them. Listen to their stories. Soak in their knowledge. If your earlier generations aren’t around, be glad for what they taught you and know that they likely would be very proud of what you’ve done to extend their legacy, either on or off the farm.