©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.