A Challenge For Today’s Multifaceted Farmers: Take On Another Role—teacher

Most facets of modern farming impress and occasionally inspire envy among my non-farming friends and acquaintances.  Seldom are two days in a row the same.  I answer only to my wife and my banker. Some pretty cool toys can be written off as business expenses. There are no cubicles. Every day is casual Friday.

With my job, I usually feel like I won the lottery, even during the “Great Drought of ’12” which cut my corn yield in half. But, occasionally, I run into the perception that farming is little more than driving a tractor in the spring and driving a combine in the fall, all the while listening to the radio in air-conditioned comfort. Agronomist, marketer, mechanic and purchasing agent quickly come to mind when I think of skills useful in farming. Less obvious ones include accountant, machinist, meteorologist, venture capitalist, chemist, engineer and truck driver. The more esoteric skills would include labor negotiator, blacksmith, geographic information specialist, human resources specialist and once in a great while, computer programmer. I don’t need to master every discipline required to farm but I’d better be pretty good at a lot of them.

Farmers might be to blame for this perception of skills needed. We make it look easy, especially when we’ve spent the last several years in another “golden age” of agriculture. Today, the money ($7 corn) and technology get everyone’s attention. Most don’t realize landlords and seed, fertilizer, chemical and machinery companies also saw $7 corn and raised their prices accordingly. The farmer’s pie got bigger, and then everyone took a bigger slice.

I want non-farmers to know that, even now, when crop insurance and hedging strategies are supposed to guarantee profitability, farming is still a risky business that runs on a tremendous amount of borrowed capital. My banker is the most important person in my business. When the good times end, I’ll need him more than ever.

Many outside agriculture only have fuzzy memories of farming, probably dating back to a photo of them on the seat of grandpa’s tractor. Far more don’t even have that tenuous connection.

My solution is for farmers to educate those around us. That can take several forms.

Our farm has hosted international visitors and local grade school students. Bus tours, organized by a Midwest lifestyle magazine, will stop in this year to hear “a real farmer talk about his business and even start a $250,000 tractor.” I’ve participated in panel discussions about food versus fuel or the merits of GMO crops and shared my international agricultural experiences with service clubs, college classes and church groups. Something
as simple as a letter to the editor will reach and teach a few.

There is no shortage of opportunities for farmers to speak with people who don’t have any exposure to farming. Teacher. That’s another skill set to add to the list.