WISE WORDS: Lessons Learned w/ Molly Ames
the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
Somehow along the way, we as a culture started becoming disconnected, even disinterested, in each others experiences and perspectives, especially on the generational tip. We used to revere the importance of imparting wisdom from one group to the next... nowadays it feels like we don't acknowledge the value of lessons learned from those before us. 'Wise Words' is a new G.S. series meant to reconnect us through storytelling, through the lens of women who have information worthy of listening to.
Together we can learn and grow and better ourselves for each other, one life lesson at a time.
Molly Ames is a radical woman. She's worked in farming finance for many years and has an incredible perspective on food, money, and living life in a way that keeps you open to what opportunities may come. She's also the super lovely mom to a dear friend of GOOD SUPPORT - Bowen Ames. In her interview below, she shares her light, knowledge, and experience with us.
I have made my living in agriculture; I have farmed, I have taught farmers and for many years I worked for an agricultural lending Cooperative as a loan officer and a branch manager. For a short time, with my youngest son, we tried our hands at a farm of our own. Now traveling is my full-time endeavor.
I am a liberal progressive. For a long while I resisted registering as a Democrat. I changed my mind so I could vote in the last primary. The stakes have gotten higher. There is too much at risk these days for me not to get involved. I am a news junkie and I consider myself well-informed and well connected to reliable news sources. I try to stick to the facts. I do talk about politics but find myself weary of “preaching to the choir” when discussing things with people I agree with. The other option is so much more difficult for me and so I often avoid it. Unfortunately, it seems like when I am provoked into discussion, my emotions come into play and that rarely goes well. I truly aspire to finding a way to engage with those people whom I don’t agree with, conservatives, etc. in a way that is constructive. Not there yet and I am not even convinced that anyone ever changes their views because of a conversation or discussion. My own experience is that personal pain causes learning.
My love of this earth means that the environment is at the top of the issue list for me. I am horrified and deeply saddened by our current situation. I believe that poverty and human rights are issues that are connected and must be addressed if we are to have a stabile future on this planet. The disparity of wealth, abuses of basic human rights and the lack of empathy for all living creatures will cause our downfall sooner or later. I have hope that the super-wealthy minority will come to understand that the impoverished majority represents an existential threat to them. Hoarding wealth is not in their best interest.
I was born and raised in New York State with one foot in Connecticut. My mother lived in the suburbs. My father lived in the Big Apple in the winter and in northwest Connecticut in the summer. In the 1950’s there was farm country within an hour of the city. Farming caught my interest early on. It started with gardening. Growing things, after all, is about creating something from sun, earth and water; inputs that are all seemingly free and seemingly democratic.
In New England, I did not have to look far for people who were living off the land. Self-sufficiency appealed to me. Indigenous people, pioneers, and wanderers all had skills that I admired. Family folklore had it that my sisters and I were named after cows from a Quaker farm down the road. My first crush was on that young Quaker dairyman who fixed my father’s generator. My first paying job was feeding calves and eventually milking cows. I drove tractors, mowed and made hay bales, mucked out stalls and went to bed happy.
I studied Ag Economics in college. My advisor assigned an independent study trying to dissuade me from the notion of self-sufficiency. It was, he said, an outdated notion and financially impossible in a world of capital-intensive farming and high taxes. All these things require cash profit. Disillusioned but determined, I graduated and went looking for a “real job” in agriculture. There were many. I chose to put myself in the middle of capital. I took a job as a credit representative for a farmer owned lending cooperative. If farmers need money, I would give it to them. Or lend it to them.
Thus began twenty years of getting to know my clients, of reviewing balance sheets and cash flow statements. Watching endless cycles of ups and downs, I was drawn into the lives of these farm families and their losses and gains, both personal and business. Farming, for most of them, is a calling, not a job. This is certainly true of other professions but farm families live where they work. They carry on the legacy from their parents and sometimes grandparents. They sometimes hope their children will farm as well.
This can get in the way of seeing the hard, cold reality of money, finance and decision making. Denial, sympathy, and romanticizing are not helpful traits when it comes to evaluating a business. I understood that I was part of a financial institution that must exercise due diligence, financial soundness and conservatism to ensure the financial health of the cooperative and its members.
The inexorable forces of national and global competition, the law of diminishing returns, and the ravages of stress, worry and loss are a hard thing to watch when you know the players personally. It wasn’t hard to see where the trends were headed. So with the knowledge I had acquired, I decided to apply my skills to financial education training for young farmers. This way I would be working with young adults seeking help with financial management. I met a new breed of farmers who wanted to stay small with all the challenges that presents. In my mind, it takes as many or more skills to manage a small business as a large one.
Volume covers a lot of financial sins. If you keep expanding, you can ignore flaws, borrow to get more profit, and stay on the left side of the curve of diminishing returns, but only for a time. To stay small, you must look hard at things, at every nook and cranny of your business. Getting better, not bigger. The benefits are many. You get to continue to do more of what you love. You can keep things simple like that Quaker farm of my youth. The environmental challenges are more manageable. You are light and nimbler on your feet. Small farmers are now in the enviable position of offering their customers what they want: local, maybe organic, fresh, sustainably grown food. This is more easily marketed than commoditized, generic, ultimately processed products that are a dime a dozen and cannot be easily differentiated.
If you are a farmer or a consumer who cares about healthy, affordable food and a healthy environment, I believe there is much to be learned from our ancestors who bought or grew apples or potatoes instead of canned applesauce or frozen Tater Tots. I want flavor, freshness and quality for less money. Eating this way is a political act. When you buy or grow your food on a small scale you are supporting sound environmental practices. You are paying attention to “food miles” and the carbon footprint of your food.
Women can learn to do everything they want, anything a man can do if they want to. They can fix things, build things, grow things. They may need to adapt some equipment with levers or pulleys so they can use the strength they have without brute force. That is a good lesson to learn in itself: be smarter, not stronger. Women make great direct marketers; they listen and they know how to tell the story of their products. Most women can use their maternal instincts on living creatures, saving a lot on vet bills and visits. Don’t laugh.
Good Support resonates with me. I found mentors that taught me practical skills like how to use a multi-meter, change a tire or a blown fuse. We need community. Mentoring, teaching and apprenticing is activism, politics at its best. Isn’t it?