I am so thankful the calendar says it is spring. I am watching the snow drifts outside my kitchen window cry uncle to the warming rays of the sun. It feels as if a heavy burden is being lifted. The sun is brighter, our smiles are wider and our steps are lighter until we slip on a water covered patch of clear ice.
    It is almost fun watching the weather forecast again as we keep an eye out for the day we can ditch our winter coats. The weather gal does not seem to appreciate our temperature swings. She was apologizing for still being below freezing at night. We are giving thanks for the warmer days and cold nights for two reasons. The drop below the freezing point at night will generate a slower melt down and not such a rapid spring flood. The best reason is because the temperature swings are perfect for a big maple syrup season. Al cleared the snow away from his maple trees, and the buckets and pouches are hanging from the taps to capture the sweet sap. He built a huge snow pile to protect the boiling crew from cold northerly winds as they stoke the fires to boil off the water and collect the sweet syrup. This is a sure sign spring is on the way.
    The other day, Austin asked me a puzzling question. “What is the most important asset on the farm?” Off the top of my head, I could rattle off financial resources, cattle, us, land, skid steer or cordless power tools. But knowing Austin, I knew it was a much deeper question and one he already had the answer to. He did not provide any explanation, only a three-word answer.
    An open mind.
    Wow. My mind started to race around his words to see how it fit in scenarios. All problems could be solved with an open mind. It did not matter if it was a financial problem or a reproductive problem. Having an open mind provides an opportunity to see old problems in a new light to find better solutions. Austin’s words are few, but profound. At times, he is wise beyond his years.
    This reminds me of an example between knowledge, wisdom and philosophy. Knowledge knows a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. Philosophy is wondering if that means ketchup is a smoothie. Just something else to think about.
    One way to spend a Minnesota winter day is catch an educational class to help expand your mind. We caught one on transitions the other day. Mark and I attended one about eight years ago in the same room at the technical college. The room was packed with a presenter stationed between two large video screens explaining tax laws and business structure options. This year there was only one screen and a third of the room was in use. Either everyone figured it out the last time or there are fewer people exploring their options of how to protect their assets and plan for the future.
    It seems like yesterday when we were sitting next to Ralph at these meetings trying to figure out how to move from one generation to the next. I look over at Austin and wonder what he is thinking? As words such as trusts, probate, inheritance taxes and nursing home care are thrown around, I notice his eyes start to glaze over as he tries to keep up with this new vocabulary. Is this a path he wants to follow?
    My mind starts to wander and wonder as I zone in and out of the presentation. I wonder if there will be farms with less than 100 cows in the future. When we started out, the general rule of thumb was that it took 30-50 cows per family unit to make a go of it. Not to get rich but to cover expenses, live comfortably and still have a little left over to put away for down the road. We milked 100 cows for three family units when we started out, covering us, Al and the parents. What is that magic number today? It seems experts and financial advisors are pushing for a larger number of cattle to cover a larger debt and higher production costs.
    During the banking crisis 10 years ago, the catch phrase was too big to fail. The government decided some banks were too big to let go under and bailed them out. In the last 10 years, we have seen seismic growth in the size of the family dairy farms. I wonder, have some farms grown too big to fail? Or, are they too big to pass on? I understand our children are not going to farm like us. They cannot. Farming today is different than it was when we started 30 years ago. It is also different than when Ralph started farming 70 years ago. But, we all made the changes necessary for the times to keep moving forward. I still cannot help but wonder, are we too small to pass on?
    Change is coming. We do not know what shape or direction, but as long as we keep an open mind to the possibilities we will be using our most valuable asset to make the best decision possible.
    Natalie, Mark and his brother Al, farm together near Rice, Minn. They milk 100 registered Holsteins under the RALMA prefix. Their four children are grown up and all involved in agriculture with hopes of someone returning to the farm. For questions or comments, please e-mail Natalie at mnschmitt@jetup.net