Monday, June 24, 2019

How old should farmers be?

Feb 2011

Perhaps I’m just at a sensitive point in my life, but all the hysterics about the average farmer
age increasing is getting up my nose. To begin with, being 57 is not a national catastrophe.

The arithmetic is pretty straightforward. We'`re the age distribution completely even (the same number of farmers at every age), and positing a career that starts at 20 and ends at 70, the average would be 45 at minimum. But farmers are not employees hired for their skills from a pool of workers. They are small business owners. To see whether our average age is a concern, a better comparison might be with other small business owners.

Moreover, we are constrained by physical limits: the number of acres available, for one. Consequently, farming success or even entry depends on taking “market share” – not a trivial task.

Similar to stockbrokers handling investments for individuals, tenancy is a trust relationship, which is usually based on familiarity and personal ties, not class rank or GRE scores. Other than picking your parents well, there are few “fast-tracks” for farmers, unlike Boy Wonders on Wall Street. With the growing capital intensity of agriculture, we should no more expect 25 year-old producers running million-dollar operations that we would see bank presidents of the same age. At the same time the disappearance mid-sized farms eliminates rungs on the ladder for steady advancement. There are fewer 80-acre stepping-stones, and more 400-acre brawls.

The paucity of young farmers is a testament to how the requirements for this work have moved on from upper-body strength to business acumen. While there is a premium for the energy and ambition, it pales in importance to a proven track record and being able to relate to landowners.

Our inverted age distribution also is a reassuring indicator of how much safer and how much better our health care is compared to previous generations. Instead of widowed landladies, more cranky farmers are still in charge.  I’m not sure this is an improvement, but it does nudge the numbers higher.

Farming is a cumulative, “backloaded” career. Your career peak is almost always ahead. A farmer seldom has more power, influence or security than the day before he retires. Most of us wait decades for this status, and the complaints that it should be handed down simply for chronological symmetry are laughable.

And like other professions, many did not take command until another even more senior leader stepped down. If your father didn’t relinquish control until 75 and your career “started” at 50, why not reap the fruit of your patience? It is also little wonder that during good times especially, farmers stay in the saddle. Nothing will raise the average to 60 like $6 corn, I would predict.

Now throw in the fact careers are often starting later, in mid-thirties, for example. After college and other jobs, rookies may be the greater cause for the higher average.
Finally, the number grows due to consolidation and technology. Fewer farms mean fewer entrants. Greater productivity doesn’t bump out guys at the top as often as eliminate openings.  Farmers are older because they are fewer. Nor is this an American phenomenon. The average age in the UK is 64.  Maybe we’re too young.

We have aspiring farmers backed up waiting for a chance – not a recruiting problem. The average at least sends an approximate signal as to what to expect when. While it may seem unfair, it also is a testament to the sacrifice required of those who are farming now. Aspirants should ask for example, whether a 15-year career starting at 55 is worth it.

Worst of all, pointless whining about farmer age likely exacerbates retirement delays from sheer irritation, in my opinion. Every accusatory announcement simply tightens more gnarled fingers on the combine steering wheel.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Licensed to till

TP 2008

One of the most curious differences between my farm and my Danish friends is the fact they are licensed farmers. Danish farmers must pass a test, have a degree in agriculture (although there are workarounds for this) and serve “apprenticeships” as training before being licensed to farm.  Further, farmers over 65 are not licensed, nor children.  Farmers must be licensed to buy and operate farm machinery, as well.
There are some upsides to this practice.  First, there are fewer incompetent farmers in their midst, and those who do farm can point to some proof of expertise.  We all look at our doctor’s diplomas while in the office for example.  And more than a few have tacked “CCA” to our business identity to suggest some credentials.
But the real kicker is only licensed farmers can own farmland. Roll that thought around in your head for a while.  To be sure, crafty Danes have found ways to skirt this, but the vast majority of farmland in Denmark is farmer-owned as a result. This is a radical leap for Americans, but I can see both sides.
The whole idea, I’ll admit seems like a non-starter, actually. For the most part we look in horror at professional accreditation for our occupation.  In fact, when I mentioned this on US Farm Report, the response was remarkably hostile.
The first objection seems to be philosophical/political.  Professional licensing strikes many producers as trampling our individual rights.  And of course, you can’t hurl the “s-word” around enough these days: socialism.
But I have checked the Constitution, and the right to farm is not actually spelled out there.  Furthermore, the specter of over-regulation is not exactly a timely complaint as lax government oversight is repeatedly blamed for our current credit nightmare, and the solution cannot be disguised as close to capitalism.
Farmers have been exempt from too much for too long.  One glaring example is our appalling safety record, which annually tallies children killed at work. Imagine any other industry having public approval to put minors in dangerous situations.  Licensing curbs this abhorrent practice.
The truth is we long ago passed the era of being a labor-intensive industry.  Modern industrial agriculture is about capital, technology and management.  As Dan Anderson pointed out in his musing about licensing farmers, letting anybody operate modern farm machinery is asking for trouble.
Licensing also identifies who is truly a farmer for my European friends. The FSA would love to have that murky issue clarified. Plus it might just save your subsidy if fewer dollars went to Ted Turner. At the same time, self-imposed qualifications would do much to preempt environmental regulatory action.
The idea, of course, smacks of elitism – a political no-no.  Recognizing superior accomplishment triggers a defense that only the self-anointed possess the needed character. However, I notice friends always manage to drop the phrase “one of the best in the country” when talking about their doctor or hospital. That seems pretty elitist to me. On the same scale, what is wrong with wanting the best in the country to take care of the country?
Mostly there is resistance (that increases with age) to the idea of objective measurement of professional skill. The concept of passing the bar or CPA exam is well and good for eggheads, but we’re talking about farming, right?
Maybe not much longer.  The skill set that enabled me to start farming is now just the minimum. While many may not like the idea of evolving into a true profession, we need to remember that surgeons were once little more than barbers with way too much time on their hands.
For young farmers, licensing is one step that grants them full rights without undue restraint. Current producers would undoubtedly be grandfathered into the system, but the benefit would clearly accrue to early careers. State-of-the-art training is the most powerful market value young people can bring to the game, but without licensing it goes unrecognized.
Licensing American farmers would formalize a process already in progress. We no longer are a profession open to anyone, just as casual entrepreneurs can’t open a dentist’s office or even roof a house.
By refusing to adopt professional standards, we forego a chance to raise our collective performance right at a time when such reassurance would be most reassuring to our customers.  Worse yet, we impede the entrance and rise of better minds and greater ability.
But then, maybe that’s the idea.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

©John Phipps 2007

Am I sustainable yet?

Summer 2007

The best I can discover, my mother’s family began their connection with our farm in 1854. So, we’re talking 150+ years and counting. Another way of putting this is: Abraham Smith, Shepherd B. Smith, William Monroe Smith, Hallie Smith Jennings, Mary Louise Jennings Phipps, and ta-dah – John Phipps. I tend to favor this dating method.

Now add in the fact, that according to every objective measure I can afford, the soil – the physical dirt on which I stand – is in better shape than when I began my career. Phosphorus and potassium levels are higher, organic matter has almost doubled, and the few erosion problems I had (water drains toward our farm, not away) are at least partially mitigated. Yield charts are pointed in the right direction, our wells test clean, and the tilth of the soil (admittedly hard to measure) is better with the drainage we continually add.

I think I’m sustainable. Really.  I think we can keep this act going for a few more decades at a minimum. But since I have already freely confessed to being an industrial farmer, it turns out I am disqualified from claiming sustainability.

So what are the criteria?  Funny you should ask, because like “natural” and “organic” this definition is illusive. One source offers this standard: “Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Note the use of the words “rests on” rather than “is”.  One way to insure that sustainability is reserved for the right people is to embed as many subjective qualities as possible in the definition. “Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals--environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.” Guess who will judge the “social equity” part of the competition.

Factoring in external costs (pollution, erosion, etc.) should be the function of the market, and if adopted, would further many goals for sustainable ag proponents. An oil tax would be an example. However, my prediction is even with such constraints, industrial agriculture would find a solution, since change is what we do best.

Sustainability often is code for “self-contained”. Sustainable ag proponents are drawn to the idea of minimal non-local inputs. Using fertilizer from vast deposits in Morocco, for example violates this concept of the closed circle of production, even though employing such assets when they otherwise would yield zero return seems to be a win-win decision.

Sustainable agriculture relies upon animals to complete many of the “closed-circuits” of nutrient cycles. Strangely, this is not seen as technology, even though it is arguably unnatural: man alters animal lives to his purpose, i.e. domestication. Similarly the use of lime for pH control is countenanced likely because it is ubiquitous and hence “local”. I wonder if a farm with a potash deposit could apply it and still be sustainable.

In fact, sustainability is another maxim by which agrarian thought closes itself to the world. However, if I define my community as the globe, I am not using any “outside” inputs. Given the increased linkage of the global economy, is this an unreasonable enlargement of “community”? Perhaps, but when viewed from this perspective, industrial agriculture not only is sustainable, it is expandable.

Local sustainability also requires a stable economy and political structure to allow it to flourish. The infrastructure built in part by industrial agriculture allows pockets of sustainable agriculture to thrive undisturbed. You don’t see many Amish communities in Afghanistan, for instance. In fairness, a world of only sustainable agriculture would likely have less need for courts and roads and banks.

Sustainable agriculture also seems content, even obsessed with limiting production.  The underlying theme is of land being fragile and easily overburdened by modern technological methods, again with little data to verify this assertion. As yields climb, it is fair to ask, “Where are the signs of exhaustion?”

Sustainable agriculture also employs much more labor. Farmers who see a future of computers and machines are drawn to the job security of this alternative. Sustainability refers then to their lifestyle, not their farm.

Sustainable agriculture is not, in my view, about sustainability or agriculture. It is about trying to recover some perceived lost status for people who think lives are devalued by participating in an enormous economy. By drawing a tight circle around me and mine, and adopting pharisaical rules of correct practice, sustainable agriculture proponents try to ensure the moral spotlight shines only on them. 

©John Phipps 2006

Proud to be Industrial

Summer 2006

Few farmers are comfortable being labeled “industrial”. The word fairly drips contempt and calls to mind images of bleak desolation (did you picture a smokestack?). But in the faces of my farm visitors, I have seen the truth. The jolting difference between the farm they see and the farm they expected was troubling. “It looks so…industrial”, one visitor finally blurted.

Yes, it does. And for lack of a better description, I’m OK with it.  Heck – “industry” is a synonym for hard work, diligence and productiveness. Sounds like me. (Some of the time.)

Weird, isn’t it?  A community close to me just lost out in a competition for a new car assembly plant and thousands of good paying industrial jobs. The disappointment was keen. To even hint, however that farming in these parts has become an industry borders on the apocalyptic.

The reasons, I believe are woven deep in our culture. The agrarian ideal I explored earlier (March 2006) has been the promotional cover story for farm policy despite the fact it has been frozen in time since about 1945. Producers automatically disguise themselves as agrarians for a simple reason – it qualifies us for “empathy payments”.

But we aren’t quaint subsistence peasantry. Many of us simply avoid thinking too much about what GPS, HTA’s, and LDP’s imply about the level of technical and economic sophistication we actually employ.

We also have abdicated the heavy pondering of whether agriculture as we really, really practice it is less moral than the image we offer. By failing to articulate a justification of our actions we allow the populist condemnation of modern farming to stand unchallenged, and our own doubts to multiply.

Time’s up on that shrug-off. Industrial agriculture is a rational, efficient and ethical response to the need for “growable” goods. The technology used is morally inert – the way it is employed and the consequences should be the standard by which it is judged.

The agrarian model is self-centered, although portrayed as deeply intertwined with the “natural” world. Self-sufficiency in a tight community may actually be a benign cover for “It’s all about me and mine”. This business model fails the test of arithmetic. Agrarians never point out how their way of life could be extended to millions, nor do they seem to care. The idea that 300 million people in the US alone could be fed by farmer markets is laughable. Therein lays another subtext: agrarians border on being “anti-people” – or at least “anti-more-people”.  

Agrarians are leery of those who can work in larger-than-medieval groups. The basic techniques of industrialism – specialization, organization, centralization – are often portrayed as demeaning, even when the world has found huge payoffs for such cooperative effort.  And don’t bring up technology! Simple, they say, is a virtue.  Fair enough, but then to be complex and good is a greater achievement, and worth applauding.

An alternative view is industrialization is the evolution of artisanal work through technology and people skills. Industrialists may be despised, in short, because they can play well with others unlike themselves, as well as learn outside their discipline.

Fool me once. The inference that industrial agriculture is inherently harmful also conveniently overlooks one obvious rebuttal: how does such a bad practice continue so long in free societies?  Have we finally found a way to fool all of the people all of the time?

Our industrial system ensures such criticisms are heard and addressed. Industrialism is far from perfect, but it rewards innovation, enabling rapid answers. More importantly, industrial agriculture is scrutinized and regulated - from OSHA to EEOC – unlike small farms with blanket exemptions.  Guess which segment will have fewer child fatalities, for example. 

As our food industry progresses with industrial efficiencies, it is ironic that agrarian agriculture is a one beneficiary. The enormous wealth made possible by industrial methods makes small and/or organic farms catering to agrarian beliefs possible, and more importantly, profitably countercultural. If there were no Walmarts, in other words, there would be no Whole Foods.

I am an industrial farmer. I am proud to be part of a responsible team that provides food and more to the world. I welcome agrarians to provide their unique contributions and will abide by the decisions of the marketplace on our differences. But I will no longer stand mute as my work and values are disparaged simply to get an LDP.

And if customers find my product satisfactory, I will intensify my effort. And if they find my work practices insufficiently quaint to deserve subsidy, I guess I win again.