Thursday, April 27, 2017

March 2015

It’s time for better endings
No effort has been spared as ag media worked to educate farmers about estate planning. However, this worthwhile effort glosses over the key event in the “transition” process: somebody dies.
Like most Americans, farmers don’t talk much about dying. So while our affairs may be in calculated readiness, the actual process we face is studiously ignored until thrust upon us. One result, as noted in my book review in this issue, is we often lose control of important aspects of our lives during the final days. In short, we have too many bad endings.
The issues raised by Dr. Gawande are often intensified for farm families. Distance is the greatest difficulty. Caregivers are often far and few. Their duties and authority, if not well understood, can frustrate the best-intentioned efforts. Newer services, such as modern hospice programs will be harder to obtain and more expensive. Far from support services, the cost of dying can escalate rapidly. Time in transit consumes the waning time of the patient and taxes the caregiver.
As rural communities depopulate and age, the social network that has added so much to final times is incomplete or missing altogether – church families, fraternal organizations, recreational groups, etc. Support ministries like funeral dinners are quietly switched to professionals, unavoidably altering the traditions of passing.
Our willful ignorance of the art of dying, as it was called for centuries, leaves us with little guidance and unrealistic expectations. But we can do more to make final days the best they can be.
One pervasive fear is leaving our homes, but we do little to prepare for our decline, often to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. Downstairs bedrooms and easy-access facilities can’t be added at the last second. Accommodations for live-in caregivers should be a consideration.
Simple efforts to embrace alternative connections can minimize anger at seeming abandonment. Master simple Facebook skills, switch to a Kindle for a fingertip library, and start e-mailing friends for important social contact. Smartphones allow grandchildren to text and send photos.  Avoiding non-stop TV seems to be an important step to prevent unhappiness.
Difficult discussions about your hopes and fears are imperative. Unworkable expectations of support can add resentment and guilt to an already troubled time. Caregivers must take time to ask the right questions, such as “What do you fear most?” and “What tradeoffs are you prepared to make?” in order to manage an inherently aggressive medical system. Most of all, we must listen patiently to the dying to learn what they think is important, which is often not safety or added lifespan.
Farm families have another struggle, as amid grief and worry, oncoming generations may be anxious about the farm business. Many estate plans crumble during a lengthy final illness like Alzheimer’s. Those who have created a plan for the cost of such an outcome need to understand the underlying assumptions. For example, Medicaid currently pays nearly 2/3 of US long-term care costs. Gaming Medicaid, now common to protect farm assets, won’t help much if the program is a casualty of ideological warfare.
Avoid a managerial limbo during a protracted decline toward death. Inability to deal with unexpected business possibilities can mean lost opportunities or aggravated problems while the management is “on hold”. Tensions between financial custodians, health caregivers and distant family can add suspicion to grief – a bitter mixture. An unhelpful effort to unreasonably prolong life can transfer too much authority from loved ones to physicians, attorneys, and accountants, while neglecting the possibilities for a more positive ending.

As Baby Boomers die in larger numbers, our support system will be taxed across the nation. In rural America, as we have learned on so many issues, unless we take responsibility to build a better response to dying, most helpful programs will be diluted or unfeasible. Absent better end-of-life education and realistic planning, the default will be too often an unhappy, exhausting descent into a medical establishment that struggles to say when.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Reports That Time Forgot

Top Producer February 2004

© 2004 John Phipps

There are no stupid questions. There are, however, several clueless people asking questions – who pretty much generate a similar product. One of them would be I.
Sample Clueless Question: Why do crop reports come out on the 10th of the month? It seems like they have been stuck on this time frame for ages. The truth is that they have – ever since Adam first asked Cain how the wheat crop was doing, presumably. In fact, I was told by a senior NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Services) official that reports were required to be out between the 8th and the 12th, but some research showed later that the former date was not binding.
Hence the answer to why crop reports come out on the 10th (approximately) is: Because They Always Have.
Crop reports are time-sensitive material. The sooner the report comes out the more accurate and hence valuable it is. Traders and producers already “fade” crop reports for crucial months based on weather between the 1st and the 10th, for example. So I asked two NASS statisticians if it was possible to process the crop reports faster. The answer, unsurprisingly, was an unequivocal “No”.
Poised on the brink of some vigorous bureaucrat-bashing, I can’t find it in my heart to jump in. First of all, the question is unfair. If your landowner asks if you could pay more cash rent, would you say yes? Any answer other than no is trouble. The reason is equally clear: not changing is better for me. Besides, crop report customers have essentially given up hope.
Brokers that I spoke to were surprised at the idea, even while agreeing that more timely reports would be terrific. The concept of any improvement in the reports seemed startlingly novel.
Regardless, the sincere NASS professionals I spoke with were convinced that their operation was at maximum output. Eerie, isn’t it, that prescient legislators were able to foretell decades ago that a 2003 crop report would take 10 days to produce?
To be fair, I reasoned, maybe the reports are not getting faster, but better – more accurate. Except they haven’t. University of Illinois researchers couldn’t find much evidence on that score
The sadly unavoidable conclusion is that NASS is as good as it can be. More inconceivably, it has always been. Somehow their output has gotten no better after several decades (or worse, to be sure). By definition, therefore, NASS has zero productivity growth. Strangely, the budget has expanded, however. Net effect: same product, higher price.
Measuring productivity in government is a radical idea. Recently the Illinois state auditors announced plans to measure the productivity of university professors. Academia was aghast. For good reason, I suspect.
Come on, improving a government service is not impossible. Consider the FSA. Farmers, profoundly concerned about how fast government funds get squirted into their accounts, call their Congressperson to share these anxieties. Not coincidentally, despite concerns about staffing and budget, the FSA continues to improve productivity.
Mostly I take exception to the attitude that government has some note from Mom excusing them from the march of progress. All over the world information system (IS) managers just as industrious as those at NASS explain to clients that current deadlines and quality are as good as they can be. And every day they are told to make it better and faster or “we’ll find someone who can”. Unsurprisingly, deadlines move up and quality increases.
Perhaps an analysis by a top-tier IS consultant like Bearing Point or IBM would illuminate ways NASS could improve at least their speed. In fact, they might just leave an outsourcing proposal on the desk. NASS is not the only number-cruncher in town. Information security concerns have been solved by the Department of Defense. If our nuclear weapons can be built by contractors, why not a crop report?
An outside review might also point out that the 1st of the month isn’t on the back of the Ten Commandments either. Timing crop reports to match crop development – like an Aug 15th bean report would be a step forward in accuracy.
NASS does an obviously acceptable job. The question is: can somebody else do better? I believe that the individuals I spoke to and their colleagues are diligent professionals. I am nonetheless concerned that the entire agency has lost contact with real world standards of IS – mainly that the output should get better, faster, and deliver more value to the customer.
Of course, it would be helpful if these customers (the grain industry) cared enough to ask clueless questions, too. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Proximity Premium

Top Producer 2006

Looking at the list of influences shaping the grain farming industry it is hard to find a common thread: rising costs, increasing yields, cheaper technology, labor shortages, expensive [large] machinery, diminishing crop choices, “flatter” grain origination (fewer steps between grower and user), investor ownership of increasingly costly land, and transparent competition. Individual producers, nonetheless, are discovering one workable strategy to handle these disparate challenges.
That strategy is proximity – farming close. While the evidence of this game plan is anecdotal, as all early indicators are, it is widespread and resonates with our instinctive impulses.
The proximity premise is “duh!” obvious – farming close yields a profit boost. (I told you it was a no-brainer). But what has not been precisely measured is how much of a boost, especially compared to far-flung operations. When operating profits were wider, there was less point in the careful allocation of costs to document this seemingly slim difference, but the Brave New World of extremely low margins has exposed some vulnerabilities in widespread farming.
Most of us can identify the factors, but few of us anticipated the value of the synergy between them:
Higher on-station time: A 6-row combine sitting at the end of the field is as productive as a 12-row machine sitting at the end of the field. The same principle applies to a combine in transit. Or a planter. Proximity makes intensive operation of undersized equipment possible, especially with autosteer and enhanced machine lifetimes. (Hint: compare your engine/separator hour-ratio with your buddies) Running with fewer people works too. The proximity premium is real money, not just convenience.
Cash rent adjustments: Often large operators could lease ground simply because management skills such as the politics of different rents for different landowners stymied local operators. Survivors have learned. One result I have seen recently and Mike Walsten in Landowner Newsletter has noted is nearby operators are often setting the rental market.
Elbow room: Putting a 24-row planter in 42 acre field is an exercise in end-rows and unfolding. Large mobile operators are eyeing smaller or isolated fields more critically after a few years of data. Tack that 42 A. onto the next-door neighbor and it looks like part of a 200 acre high- efficiency tract. That proximity premium may have an actual value of $15- 20/A in my experience. As locals switch to cash rent, pull out fencelines, and experience some big-field benefits, they are more prepared to bid for the field next door.
Home-town heroes (a.k.a. the devils you know): Sufficient examples have accumulated with out-of-the-community operators that some landowners at least are reconsidering priorities. While the rents still must be

competitive, we many have learned the sad way it makes church potluck
dinners more amiable when you rent locally.
  • Harvest pressure: As local elevators close, farmers are building bins just
    to keep the harvest going. While the “romance of the road” seemed like a glamorous profit center when the semi craze began 15 years ago, we’ve discovered that you can’t own enough trucks to keep an AFX or 9760 running full blast unless you are hauling locally – preferably about 3⁄4 mile. This means building bins, and we soon discover: 1) Big – really big – bins are better, unless your hauler loves to move the 13” auger twice a day. 2) Paying for one 800-amp entrance is bad enough, but it’s better than 4 sites with 200 amp entrances 3) Centralized storage encourages well- built, for-the-long-run layouts with high efficiencies rather than whatever works for a day. All this implies centralized acres.
  • Now add in a sharply up-trending yield curve thanks to biotech. If getting 200 bu/A. away from a combine is challenge, what about 240? 300? Where ya gonna haul?
  • The best neighbor in the world: yourself. Need to fix the tile, avoid spray overlap, or hate other semis blocking the road? The common answer is to rent/own the land next to you. While we have always known this, we are starting to monetize these headaches and fold them into our bids.
    Proximity has always been an obvious, idealistic situation that took generations to accomplish – a long time for American attention spans. Behold the upside of cash rent. After despising it for years, those who master its management are discovering a tool that can help them speed nearby growth.
Moreover, I believe that such operations are the “seed crystals” from which will grow America’s answer to the cerrados of Brazil and steppes of Ukraine. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Budget Triage

January 1999

When the dust had settled from 1998, I wearily began the plan 1999. I had a cashflow projection from several months ago, and when it updated from the final figures from 98, and was modified for changes that had happened on the farm, I saw to my horror a less than satisfactory margin.

Since raising income, always a good idea but very hard to accomplish, was not going to solve the whole problem, Jan and I took the knife to our expenses, amputating in an effort to save the patient.

This is not easy to do either. Most expenses tend to look reasonable, or “appropriate” as we say today. We do not squander money on frivolous luxuries. We invest in needed goods and services. Soon the discussion became pretty defensive.

There is a strange tendency in farm budget decisions to look at “family living” as the evil demon that causes all the problems. In fact, when farmers talk about cutting back, they usually start by making a pronouncement about living expenses. 

This prejudice offends my mathematical sensibilities. Looking for savings is best accomplished by looking at large expenses, and household expenses are not  at the top of the list compared to many farm expenses. Too often, in my opinion, the wife is expected to make up for inefficiencies in the farm. There also seems to be some sense of justification for overspending if the expense is tax-deductible. Those dollars, despite their IRS status must be generated the same way, however.

Our budget cuts:
      1. Major capital improvements:  This is pretty obvious.  Cancel the newer truck and truck shed. 
      2. Interest:  I pay a load of interest to my bank. To reduce that outlay, I am refinancing several parcels of land into a much easier to underwrite package. I have proposed, after some research, a scheme to my lender that has been approved and will cut my interest about $4000 this year.
      3. Fertilizer:  Prepare for agronomic blasphemy: I am making a withdrawal from the “soil bank”. For many years we have been in a buildup program on fertilizer. Dropping back to maintenance or even sub-maintenance levels for one year will have minimal, if any impact. Using a straight-spread instead of VRT saves about $3500 on top of the  $5500 materials savings. This sends a clear market signal to my supplier as well.
      4. Repair: The great mystery category.  Detailed analysis of my spending in this category produced the following decision - no new power toys - er, tools, period. Also, my tendency to replace the whole assembly when one small part shows wear (sickles, sweeps, rasp bars, etc.) can take a one-year vacation. Savings goal: $3500
      5. Chemicals: Based on totally unscientific research of my own, I have decided to cut back on first-year rootworm insecticide in the middle of large (80+ A.) fields, since egg-laying seems to be concentrated in the edges. (Yes, I realize the guarantee is void.)  Savings of about $4000 
      6. Insurance: Recheck my farmowners/vehicle for deductibles as high as effective. Eliminate all “first dollar” coverage. Make sure the inventories covered are accurate and reasonable. Surf Internet for auto coverage quotes. Target savings $500
      7. Office:  Several areas of fertile budget cutting. Subscriptions - eliminate duplicate sources of information. One source is getting me most of what I need.  Lose other services this year. Office expenses - stop upgrading every computer program just because version x.0 is out. No hardware upgrades. (Ouch!) Lose computer mags.
      8. Capital equipment: Sell my excavator. (sob!) I wanted to get a different kind anyway, and a 2-3 year hiatus won’t be a big sacrifice. Also sell some wagons and never-used tools at a consignment auction. Capital freed: $15,000
      9. Taxes: I have always tried to resist frontloading expenses, but paying some operating interest early could save $4000-5000. I’ll hate myself years from now, of course.
      10. Household expenses
        • Insurance: Stop term insurance on Jan. Our boys are grown, and their education was the rationale for the coverage. (We replaced my term insurance last year and saved $1200) $500
        • Food: If you track it, it is amazing what you can spend on alcohol, even one drink at a time. I don’t vist the tavern, but do enjoy wine with dinner. Cutting back our wine consumption is a good thing for many reasons. If you drink, keep track for a month what it costs - could be  a surprise.) $400
        • Rigorous vacation planning: new Internet techniques for travel can cut our vacation costs, if we plan better. $500
        • Clothing: Keep my weight down so my old pants and suits fit. Throw out Lands’ End/Speigel catalog. $800
        • Home: Moratorium on kitchen investments, magazines $300
      11. Miscellaneous
        • Change bill paying date from monthly to weekly to eliminate the credit cards that come due right on the wrong day so I keep getting a late payment charge, even though we always pay in full. Also I’ve noticed they are starting to squeeze the traditional 30-day grace period. $100
        • Scale back Christmas (easy for us - no grandchildren yet) $500
        • As a last resort, consider paying the minimum principal due on long term debts. We have always tried to pay at least at little more than required. Possible savings: $3000-5000
It wasn’t fun, but we both feel better.

I think.

Last year's mistake

January 1999

Agriculture remains, for the most part, an annualized business - a cycle that starts in spring and ends in winter. Farmers feel this rhythm at an almost molecular level, and as we age, I have found, adapt most of our lives to the circle of years.

We speak of years as distinct entities and treat each new round of months as a “new ball game”. But underlying this succession of business and personal cycles are some constants that I find both help and harm my efforts to get ahead in my profession.

One of the strongest such tendencies is the absolute horror of the “successive mistake”. This is the concept embedded in the “Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me” proverb that seems to have been universally taught in rural America. The repeated mistake is not just unfortunate - it is shameful, and professionally embarrassing.

Sounds reasonable enough. But if you look closer at what this syndrome implies, it may not be so straightforward. Successive mistakes deserve personal blame only if they are truly identical, which rarely happens. The world seldom delivers matching circumstances, a problem that plagues forecasters of events as divergent as economics and fashion. Without the repeat of initial conditions, there can be no repeated mistake, just similar outcomes, which cannot be blamed on a character flaw.

Moreover, thinking in terms of mistakes and triumphs oversimplifies a much more complex range of outcomes. I find increasingly, rather than right or wrong moves, I am confronted with a bewildering array of similar appearing choices, any of which might get me where I want to go. Looking back on these decisions, I have also noticed that the results would have been likewise a mixture of good and bad news. Some would work better than others, and some, even after the fact, defy labeling. Was paying that high rent better than losing that ground? Maybe. If I had planted more short season corn, would my yields have improved? Depends.

In short, mistakes, recent or not, are getting harder to identify clearly. Worse still, things that were a bad choice in one instance, could easily be the optimal choice in a set of circumstances only slightly different. Nowhere is this more frustrating than in the area of marketing.

The instinct to avoid last year’s mistake gives a strong undercurrent in my marketing decisions, I have found. In 1998, for example, not selling early (before harvest) was a bad idea, and holding on to 1997 crop was even less fruitful. I now feel an eagerness to dump my 98 crop as rapidly as possible, since declining prices is the scenario I can imagine. When I get these itches, I often interpret market signals illogically.

Therein may be the center of the problem. My middle-aged memory tends to focus on last year to the exclusion of previous years. In the last few years, I have tried to compensate for this by writing down in January both a few simple Goals for the upcoming year, and the “Great Lessons” (profound truths revealed to me by experience) from the past year. It makes for both interesting and confusing reading.

For example, I have been engaged in an ongoing debate with myself (the kind you always lose) over two production topics: what population to drill beans and how much N to apply. Reading my past pronouncements on these problems over the last decade, I have discovered I have firmly resolved to “never again put on more that 140# N” followed shortly by the vow to “never use less than 180#”. Similarly, I have alternated in my so-called “Great Lessons” from 160,000 seeds/acre to 240,000, with equal conviction each way.

It could be that: 1) I’m getting my shorts in a knot over fairly trivial issues, and 2) many of my “Great Lessons” need an expiration date. Much of what I do is a simple response to the preceding year, to avoid the embarrassment of a double fault.

Much of what we decide now in farming will have to be done looking forward, not back. Just as Jerry Gulke is always harping on responding to today’s market, rather than trying to predict tomorrow’s, there may be few fail-safe guidelines that will ensure success. I am beginning to suspect also, that being aware of my own personal mental prejudices when I make decisions could be the best “Great Lesson” of all.

Looking for the “right” answer might be a waste of time, too. What I need are some answers that are “right enough”. I also need to lighten up about my mistakes, even the second time around. If my best analysis tells me to plant the corn deeper than usual, even though last year that was a blunder, I need to decide which I trust more - my brain or my pride. The object may be a process to find answers, not a specific answer.

Last year’s mistake is a bogeyman  I need to outgrow. Ruling out a legitimate course of action because it wasn’t the greatest tactic last season diminishes the choices I have for this year’s problems. And I need all the ammo I can get.

Endless marketing

December 1998

Something had to change. Our farm’s financial performance was not getting the job done. It was not illogical to point a finger at bad weather, bad luck, and bad timing. It just didn’t change any of the numbers or ease my own unhappiness.

In desperation I was forced to look at the one area of performance that is the most merciless for my self-esteem: marketing. I have long railed against the marketing obsession of magazines and advisors as just another way to induce feelings of inadequacy throughout the farm belt. After all, marketing is something you always could have done better. Regardless, I had no choice if I was to keep doing what I wanted to do for a living.

With this positive mental attitude, I decided I would grudgingly subscribe to (yes-pay actual money!) a market advisor who seemed to have some meager grasp on logic and then FOLLOW THE ADVICE! I swore this out loud to my wife and friends to insure plenty of irritating support when I began the inevitable backsliding and second-guessing.  

I chose an advisor I had heard speak at a seminar and who agreed with my fundamental outlook. Although advisors can be nice people, good marketers get under my skin in a hurry. They seem to insinuate comparison.

Fast-forward to now. The Result: I am satisfied with my marketing this year. This does not mean I have hit the highs and called the lows, but my farm is doing OK. The credit belongs mostly with the advisor, perhaps, but for once, I actually did some of the things I was supposed to do, instead of just thinking, “That sounds like good advice.”

I’m not all that thrilled about this success. Sure, I’m glad to have sold and hedged at the right times (mostly). In addition, I recognize and appreciate the financial stress I’m not having, for once. I even realize I am not anxiously watching for Congress to solve my problems. Nevertheless, this modest victory exacted a price - a steep and unexpected price.

Time To accomplish my marketing plan took much more time than I had expected.  And not just idle hours on rainy Saturdays, either. I had to stop the planter to read the day’s fax, get into the house to see the price quotes, struggle to make marketing orders while dust was flying in every field around me - I even got up at 3:30 am. to check the Project A quotes on Monday mornings after the weather forecast was issued. In short, more loathsome deskwork that took top priority. I now believe that to be a successful farmer means my work will be more and more management, less and less operating.

Discipline This is not my strong point, as you may have guessed. I run on emotions and frankly, I like it.  It makes life fun and exciting. It rarely makes money. With Jan’s help, I would decipher the recommendations, call the broker or elevator and take a position. And when the market went the wrong way, I strove to remember that losing on a hedge meant winning on my inventory. In short, I made one small painful step in the direction of risk management.

Adaptability I have not farmed for 25 years without acquiring ingrained marketing habits. In fact, I was in a rut - using the same seat-of-the-pants scheme year after year. I liked this rut. It was familiar and required little or no heavy thinking. My new method requires me to constantly analyze and revise my position, and worst of all, keep learning. While I have always considered myself well informed, until now I had not realized the difference between hearing news and responding to it. Moving from knowledge to action is astonishingly hard.

Most years using the “same ol’ same ol’” got me by OK.  But the stakes keep rising and the competition doesn’t care whether I want to change or not. I am not alone in wanting farming to be simpler and less mentally and emotionally exhausting. In this, we are no different from every other occupation. All over the world, people bemoan a new level of performance demanded by global competition. Maybe we have been luckier than many professions to have escaped this long.

I have also realized that this could - and likely will - go on forever. Like every other business selling anything, to survive I have to be marketing every day of my career. I am doomed to work I detest. (In fairness, after two years, I now hate it a teensy bit less.)

Maybe this is change isn’t so undeserved.  Throughout my career, many of the tasks I truly hated in farming have been eliminated - cleaning out the barn, for example. The physical aspect of farming is now perilously close to enjoyable exercises: operating machinery, building and repairing stuff, driving around in a pickup a lot. There have always been unpleasant tasks. Most of them just used to be outside. Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled. It could even be that I might come to find some small satisfaction in these new chores as well.

So that’s where I am now.  My attitude is being adjusted. I no longer think of it as marketing.  I picture it as cleaning out a managerial barn - something you just gotta do.

As safe as we want to be

November 1998

It should be obvious to any member of this profession that farming is not a particularly safe occupation. In fact, it is one of the more dangerous ways to make a living or raise a family. And we seem determined to keep it that way.

It is difficult for many farmers to make safety a priority. For starters, “Who’s gonna make us?” Because of operation size or the lack of employees, there are few enforceable safety restrictions. Similarly, the politically sacrosanct “family” umbrella shelters us from other safety mandates.

This lack of superior authority makes it easy to engage in hazardous practices, many of which pass for clever tricks of the trade. When I was in the Navy, by contrast, nuclear technology was so unforgiving that safety was the first thought, not the last. Plus I have seen naval careers crippled by not following the rules to the letter.

My son is a mining engineer. He has described in harsh detail how mining has been changed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Like OSHA in industry, MSHA is a bureaucratic cross for miners to bear. But the bottom line is that far fewer miners are injured and killed than before.

Indeed, one reason I strongly urge young people to work off-farm before returning is to get some real-world exposure to safety training. My naval training changed my attitude and helped me handle the urge to take unnecessary risks when pressured. The fact that almost every other job has stringent safety rules can make farm practices seem pretty foolish by comparison.

Maybe farmers will continue to avoid regulation by being small and family-based. However, it could also be that some politician or regulator is going to take a look at our professional safety record and see a need for government action, which could just coincidentally help his career.

One possible justification for such intervention is that, unlike other industries, we too often injure our own children. I do not wish to add pain to those who have experienced this terrible tragedy, but I am appalled at the casual attitude we have towards placing children in harm’s way through apathy and ignorance, or worst of all, for profit.

Those who feel that government will never have the political will to invade the family boundary to enforce safety rules on farms might want to rethink. The increasing use of “children’s welfare” as the moral justification for efforts as diverse as foreign policy (Iraq) and health care provides a useful precedent to those outside agriculture who would clean up our act for us.

There will be those who see this position as an infringement of constitutional freedom, but freedom brings concomitant responsibility. In my opinion, we are not handling that responsibility well, to say the least.

Others will also argue that safety rules and equipment interfere with the operation of our farms. Actually, I agree. But if your farm derives its competitive advantage from operating unsafely, you are not much of a farmer in my eyes, nor a likely long-term competitor. The operators I admire and want to emulate are those who can keep the people safe and still make money. Oddly enough, even cumbersome rules can be adapted to, and routine safe procedures can become as timely as hazardous shortcuts. Over the long run, safety pays huge dividends.

Our professional obsession for speed also complicates our priorities. Cutting corners on safety can save time in some instances. Even the threat of not finishing at all due to an accident rarely overcomes this racetrack mentality. It is important to remember therefore, that your work practices affect others by contributing to the professional standards in your area. In short, you are risking other lives as well as your own.

Unfortunately too, farm safety has become a “women’s issue” in many male operator eyes. Farm women’s organizations have been more alert to the magnitude of this problem and are in the forefront of its solution. Perversely, this can exacerbate a sexist perception of operating safely. Believe me, the “real men take chances” philosophy is out there. It is to our shame, gentlemen, that we have been so slow to join in this important effort. The truth is that real men don’t throw lives away.

We could be building our own solutions. For instance, by helping insurance companies devise routine farm safety audits that allow farms to qualify for insurance discounts, we could assign a dollar value that many farmers seem to need to recognize the risks involved.

Professional organizations such as Farm Bureau or National Corn Growers could also work to train members to view safety as an urgent political issue, not a breakout session for spouses. And the media, including me especially, needs be careful how funny we make essentially dangerous actions appear. We also need to educate our whole industry on how to weigh and compare risks - risk communication.

More than most other occupations, we farmers enjoy freedom of action in our professional lives. However, there is no legal or moral freedom to hurt and kill.