Anyone connected with agriculture has likely seen the widely circulated photo of the two small boys dressed in the striped overalls like most of us wore in the fifties. Their expressions are priceless, almost rendering unnecessary the caption that reads “You been farming long?”
That picture has been around for years and those two boys are likely grown men today. Regardless of the connotations, the question is still pertinent.
If you have been “farming long” you have seen the extremes of weather, weeds, diseases, and insects, but in recent times it seems that the biggest challenges for agriculture are from government, political issues and markets. These three are inexorably linked, but sometimes it seems that little regard is paid to the most important activity of humans on this planet.
This is, of course, agriculture.
Within our lifetimes agriculture has undergone a revolution that is unprecedented in history. The more advanced societies like our own have reached the point at which a relative few people (less than two percent in the U.S.) can feed and clothe all the others, plus export massive amounts to other nations.
The result has been that we can enjoy almost any food year around instead of waiting until it is “in season.” We actually exchange fruit, vegetables, and other commodities with other nations. An example of this is the banana, which is not grown commercially here but comes through our Gulf Coast ports in quantities that are almost unbelievable.
Regardless of the great strides that have been made in production and trade the profitability of agriculture is extremely unpredictable, changing with global production and political issues. Today we are experiencing prices for the crops we grow that may remove most of the profit from our most widely grown crops, especially corn. Cotton prices have also fallen by almost half the levels that brought cotton back to the forefront in the southern U.S. within the last few years.
Farmers have invested unprecedented amounts of capital in new equipment, and seed companies have responded with some of the most productive varieties we have ever seen. Soybeans and wheat are barely holding at levels that are only profitable with the highest levels of yield.
Land values and rental rates have skyrocketed to levels well beyond amounts that would have purchased land outright less than a generation ago. Investors have poured massive amounts of cash into land as other investments became risky, but now they are questioning that rationale.
Recently one of the older and more successful farmers I have known asked me what growers who have agreed to pay the high rental rates will do now that commodity prices have fallen. I told him that they would either readjust or go broke. He chuckled for a moment, but then stopped and said, “I expect that’s true.”
I enjoy reading some of the sayings of people like Mark Twain and Will Rogers, and there is one from Will Rogers that applies to this: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
This is just as true today as it was when he said it.