Everything I ever needed to know

Recently I heard a couple talking-heads on TV bemoaning the popular sentiment that today’s kids graduate from high school, and even college, without ever being taught how to balance a checkbook or build a budget. I don’t know what school they went to but I can assure you that they were never Future Farmers in high school.

The FFA turned me into a serial entrepreneur for the rest of my life, and I’m proud to say that I’ve started, or been a part of starting, eight businesses, everything from a stationery store to an auction newspaper, and every one of them was profitable from day one. I even got to pursue my lifelong dream of ranching despite the fact that one magazine said it was high on the list of businesses most likely to go broke, right after vending machines and bookstores.

I didn’t have an MBA from MIT like my brother, and I never took a business course in college. My professors were Professor Oink and Mr. Moo, and I learned how to keep records in the blue FFA record books we were required to keep. I still have mine and they tell the tale of a business man in training. I was busier than Paris Hilton’s publicist and I did anything to make a buck; from shearing sheep to growing orchids. That’s right, call me a sissy, but I profitably raised flowers for a florist who made corsages out of them for high school dances. Although I was way too busy to ever attend a prom, my orchids went to every one, and they were a lot more popular than I ever was.

I started my first record book in 1966 when I was 14 and my initial FFA project was two commercial ewe lambs, inappropriately named Amos and Andy. My second project was a 450-pound show steer named Abe who cost $157.50 to buy. I lost $13.50 when I sold him at the fair, despite having well over 300 hours invested. (One wonders why I ever bought another bovine.) I know all this because we were required to use a double entry accounting system that I still use today. In the front of the book was a “Calendar of Events and Operations,” a journal of my daily activities in which I wrote about earth-shattering events like “Abe’s stools are loose.”

I started in the FFA with nothing but a loan from a nice banker and according to the “Non-Depreciable Property” pages in my books I went from $35.55 after my first year to over $2,700, with an additional $3,500 in the bank when I received my American Farmer degree. My classmates went from teasing me to begging for loans.

Back then I made plenty of mistakes in business but they all served to make me a better businessman later in life. For the life of me I don’t know why I agreed to plant 20 avocado trees on our one acre of ground and to take care of them, even though I’d be long gone before there’d be any crop. But there it was, right there in the Business Agreement section of my record book. I was hoodwinked by my mom which taught me that henceforth I’d be a lot more careful who I partnered up with.

I learned the most from my rabbit project that grew from 4 bunnies to 350 faster than you can say “nymphomaniacs.” I quickly learned that a good businessman controls his inventory, balances supply with demand, and if you aren’t making money raising one rabbit in all likelihood you probably aren’t going to make any raising 500.

Not that there wasn’t some demand for my New Zealand Whites. I happened to live in an area that had a large population of dust bowl immigrants from Missouri and Oklahoma. They grew up eating rabbit, and they still had a hankering for it! One of my steady customers was a shirttail relative who thought he deserved a discount just because he was related to me.

“How much for one rabbit?”

“Three-fifty,” I replied, “cut and wrapped.”

“No, no, that’s way too much. I deserve a discount. I want a rabbit at your cost.”

“Okay, if you insist,” I replied. “That will be five dollars.”

Lee Pitts is a California ag producer and newspaper editor. See his work at www. LeePittsbooks.com.

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