Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Tools For Success In Tomorrow's Agriculture

December 16, 1996

Do you have the right tools to deal with the agricultural economy of the future? Our market-driven freedom to farm legislation also means freedom to fail. Tomorrow's agricultural environment promises to be a wilder roller coaster rids with higher highs and lower lows. In the next seven years farmers are apt to catch a down market or a bad weather year. People on the edge won't survive.

Hard times. What tool do you use during a tough year? Money. Liquid assets. Money is your Leatherman - super tool, your pliers or your crescent wrench. With a Leatherman you can be flexible, try some options and have more choices when confronted by a problem.

Farmers with liquid assets can get by during a tough year. Farmers with available cash during a bad year can find some opportunities and bargains. They can expand or make a strategic move. Use your good years to reduce debt and cushion the bad years.

The biggest fault I find in agriculture is that during a good year too much money is sunk immediately back into an operation. Not enough savings or investments are in a liquid form when a farmer or rancher needs it.

Positive coping. Your positive attitude and ability to handle stress are also key tools in weathering the bad years and staying in the farming game. I compare this to leather gloves that protect you from the tears and cuts, bumps and bruises when things slip or go haywire. Positive coping means pulling together as a family, being mutually supportive and being engaged in problem-solving instead of avoidance coping strategies.

Options. Another survival tool is diversification and specialization. I compare this tool to your grease gun and oil can. You figure out what is wrong and put the grease where it is needed.

Get big or get specialized. Specialization gives you a chance to capitalize on niche markets and special relationships. Profits are made when farmers concentrate on quality and market position, instead of a high volume, undifferentiated commodity like wheat.

Innovation. Another tool is your brain. I compare this tool to paper and pencil. Farmers use their pencil and paper when they are making observations, thinking them through and jotting down ideas that translate into efficiency and improvements.

Creativity is coupled with a conservative approach to risk and management. This long term strategy reduces risks and financial exposure while simultaneously being creative, innovative and ahead of the curve. It takes a degree of financial security and a curious open mind about breakthrough technologies to try new things.

Being creative is buying low and selling high in the world of ideas. It means going against the grain of conventional wisdom. The top 15 percent - the innovators - and the next 30 percent - early adopters - make money by the way they aggressively learn and keep on top of the field. They know what is going on with the universities, the manufacturers and their more innovative neighbors.

Today it means bringing the computer on as a working tool in enterprise management. Computers can and will revolutionize the way farmers do business.

Joining together. The next tool is cooperation. This means banding together as farmers in joint ventures to have more marketing clout. I compare this tool to your grain hauling trucks. What good is a harvest if you have no way of moving it from the field to the customer? Such things as network marketing, cooperatives, buying clubs and value-added processing plants create a marketing edge.

It takes an attitude of trust and ability to communicate and work with people to pool resources. It takes careful negotiation to come to a common purpose, determine standards and resolve differences. The future isn't the time for a cowboy to go it alone.

The trends are toward consolidation and bigness. Cooperation will bring you closer to the customers. They will pay you a premium for your product if it is delivered with sufficient volume, quality and timeliness that the processor and customer need.

If you are going to play with the big boys, you have to band to together.

Downtime. Another tool for coping well in the future is one you don't expect. Leisure. I'll compare this tool to the tape measure - a way of measuring what has to be done and making a good fit. Your work has to make a good fit with the other things in life that are important.

David Kohl, an agricultural economist from Virginia Tech, believes that farmers should put in 3,000 hours a year on the farm and another 500 in community service. That amounts to a 67-hour week including 11 hours of community service. According to Kohl, if you have to work harder than that you are doing a disservice to yourself your family and your health.

Leisure brings a hard-working, stress-filled life in perspective. Take time for yourself and your family for family fin, vacations, breaks and activities. It makes for a better life, a better retirement and a better transition to the next generation.

You need some unhurried time, some breathing room in a busy life. You need time for relationships, to get refreshed and enjoy the fruits of your hard work. Build leisure into your life and everyone will be happier. Your work will be better too.

Do you have the right tools in your tool box?