Saturday, January 26, 2019

©John Phipps 2008

Licensed to till
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.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Left behind – and I’m not enraptured
Being in the middle of groups has a naturally comforting feel. Looking at the ubiquitous newspaper pie charts indicating public sentiment on everything from trade issues to toilet paper, we often are relieved when others agree with our opinion.

More frequently, however, I find myself tending to the margins – holding positions that are mildly out of the mainstream. On a few issues I seem to have wandered into the fringe. The manly response is to assert loudly that I don’t care about the opinions of the masses; that I am an independent thinker. This is nonsense, of course – we all care about what others think.

This separation can occur not only when I adopt unpopular beliefs, but also when mass opinion shifts and I do not. In the realm of popular issues, I am less alarmed. I don’t watch enough TV to keep up with rapidly shifting controversies. Howard Dean came and went before I really had formed a judgment, for example. The situations that perplex me are not spelled out in polls but corporate decisions or organizational policy signals.

For example, I have been a happy owner of a Case 2366 combine. It is the largest combine I have ever owned and its performance has been more than I hoped, not withstanding the unloading auger-power pole incident which I now admit was not a design flaw. Its capacity is more than enough for our 1350 acres.

I was stunned to hear that CNH will not be continuing this machine size, only larger harvesters. To me it indicated I was no longer a target market for them. I do not fault their marketing, but all the charts and graphs about where farm size is going don’t begin to have the impact of discovering your operation is too small to be of interest to long-term suppliers.

Nor am I whining about loyalty. I have to make reciprocal decisions to protect my own business viability as well. Nonetheless it is a sobering wakeup call to my self-serving view of the world to find that agriculture is moving on without me.

A similar incident occurred at the AFBF (Farm Bureau) meeting recently. It has been a singular privilege to have been active in Farm Bureau at numerous levels, and I have many valued friends in the organization. I am fairly familiar with their policy from my days as a county president. One of these positions was a firm belief that free trade optimizes the outcome for all involved.

This changed in 2004. The AFBF delegate body approved a blatantly protectionist stance on selected commodities. Although the vote was razor- thin, the fact that any majority at all was assembled revealed to me how far from the pack I was. Of course this is just one issue, but added to other subtle shifts lately, I think we are “drifting apart”, to use modern relationship jargon.

Nor is it a direction I wish to go to in order to stay in the group. Loyalty to core beliefs is often more important than loyalty to groups or individuals. Farm Bureau shrewdly makes it difficult to register my disapproval by binding insurance policies to membership. Finding a new insurance agent when I really like the one I have is another hurdle altogether. So as far as the membership statistics the outside world sees, I remain another happy Farm Bureau member satisfied with policy decisions.

To be sure, I have the option of mounting a grass-roots campaign to reverse this decision, but frankly, I sense the weight of insurance customers moving in the opposite direction. My best use of time is probably to start pricing a new farm policy. Either way, I am obviously no longer in sync with much of my profession.

The latest jolt though, was President Bush’s 2005 budget. My position on the political chart has always been in the conservative Republican camp. This is where I thought the guy I voted for was anchored as well. But if planning more tax cuts in the face of $500B deficits, erecting trade barriers for politically powerful industries, attacking sincere dissent as craven disloyalty are the beliefs of conservative Republicans today, then I must be something else. Maybe I’m a liberal...Republican. I’ve heard there may be as many as 6 or 7 of us.

Now all these perceptions could simply be fusty middle-aged crankiness. Perhaps I am just not well-informed or smart enough to understand my principles are outdated. Regardless, my painfully-acquired intellectual tools and moral compass are all that I have to guide my decisions.

CNH, Farm Bureau, and the Republican Party are going where my conscience or circumstances prohibit. I suspect they won’t miss me at all.

Nevertheless, I shall miss them.