President Eisenhower once said “farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” Perhaps truer words were never spoken. I would say farming has never been “easy.” It’s always been labor intensive, although the labor today looks much different than that of 50 or 100 years ago. Farming has also always been a gamble as you’re at the mercy of the weather and numerous other factors that you have no control over.
I often hear my grandfather and father talk about farming in years gone by. I love to hear these stories, especially from my grandfather. I could listen to them for hours. They both seem to be of the opinion that times were better “back then.” To hear them tell it, prices were better and the weather was more predictable and dependable. I’m only 33. I wasn’t alive during those times so I can’t speak to whether it was better or worse than it is now. Occasionally time has a way of distorting or reshaping, for lack of a better word, one’s memory of certain events.
I think there may be some truth to their recollections. The weather has always been uncertain. Perhaps there was less uncertainty in times gone by, but it was still there and did strike all along. However, I do think in some ways they may be right. While America is still referred to as the “Breadbasket of the World” it’s not on the same level today as it once was. The competition from other nations such as Brazil for sure impacts crop prices today, but I digress.
I have often pondered, especially within the last few years, how long can we continue to sustainably farm here in the U.S.? Equipment and crop input prices have never been higher and seem to get higher every year. Crop prices have never been lower and seem to consistently stay that way. People seem to attack farmers on every hand and it seems they can never catch a break. Each year begins with fewer family farms than the year before. I’ll be honest, I don’t have an answer to the question I have posed. I wish I did. But I have some thoughts that may help point us to an answer of some type. At least maybe it will get us closer to one.
As I have said in a previous post, with today’s incredibly tight margins efficiency is the name of the game. Being prudent with every expenditure and eliminating all unnecessary and unwise expenses is imperative. No operation will survive long-term in the current farm climate without doing that. It may limp along for a few years, but eventually, it’ll be time to pay the piper.
I recently brought up this subject of sustainable farming in the U.S. with a friend who is a farmer and he made a very good point, one I had never considered. He said, in his mind, you can’t ask yourself how long can you continue to farm in the current climate. Instead, he says, you have to ask how can I achieve growth in the current farm economy? Whether it is good or bad. That blew my mind. Why have I never considered this angle before? When I was in law school, one thing they taught us is that in order to get the answer you want (or need), you have to ask the right question. The same principle applies here. I should have been doing that a long time ago.
We have no control over so many things when it comes to farming. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control crop prices. We can’t control the prices of tractors, seed, and fertilizer. We essentially have to play the hand we are dealt. If we get a bad hand, we have to adapt and overcome. It the name of the game. So, you have to look at your operation and the current climate and determine how you can achieve growth and sustainability within the current climate and confines.
Again, as I’ve said in a previous post, achieving growth will be different for every operation due to their size and focus. What may work for you may not work for your neighbor and vice versa. You may also have to get creative or “think outside the box.” Just because something is different or unorthodox doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad idea. Obviously do your due diligence, but don’t be scared to try something new, especially if it means survival for your operation.
I think one of the best ways to “brainstorm” regarding this topic is to observe and talk to other farmers. Scripture admonishes us that “iron sharpens iron” and most of us have heard the expression “two heads are better than one” all of our lives. Both statements carry a significant amount of truth. Chances are, if you’re asking a question, someone else is asking it as well (or has already asked it) and has possibly found a solution. And if by chance you’ve stumbled upon something novel, getting another perspective is never a bad thing. Sometimes if we study on a problem too long, we can get tunnel vision. This can hinder us from finding a viable solution. Never be scared to reach out. Most farmers I know, especially older ones, are always willing to impart the wisdom they have acquired through the years.
As I’ve already said, I don’t have the answer to the initial question I posed at the beginning of this post. Oh how I wish I did. What I do know is that we have to have farmers. We always will. We all like (and have) to eat. To depend upon another country for our food supply is a dangerous proposition. Not to be political, but it’s a matter of national security. Another country could hold us hostage and bring us to ruin if we were to ever get to a point where we depended upon them to supply our food. History can show multiple examples of that.
Fondly do I hope, and fervently do I pray that this nation will always have a healthy supply of farmers to feed it and the world. What that will look like going into the future is anyone’s guess. One goal of this endeavor we refer to as “Field Rows” is to foster and environment where farmers can help each other and hopefully sustain the rich history of agriculture this country possesses. So don’t be shy—reach out. Until next time, farm on, farm hard, and keep it between the field rows.