This last February, R. L. Dalrymple and I completed our thirtyfifth year as employees of The Noble Research Institute (NF). R. L. and I came to work the same day, fresh out of college. I actually came to work before I officially graduated, because I had not completed my Masters thesis. I am one of those individuals who only had one job interview in their career. I have held the same position at NF as a Forage Agronomist for all the years I have worked here. Working with farm folks has been very enjoyable for me. I consider them some of the best and most courageous people in the world.
As I look back across the years, I can pinpoint those bad times of low prices or weather problems and conclude that everything is in a cycle and it will get better. However, there is one thing that I can honestly say is different today than when I started and that is the difficulty in advising producers how to create prosperity and wealth on the farm. It seems that wealth has left the producer. I could see this coming back in the early eighties. It caused me to begin changing my thoughts and basic philosophy in management of my own farm. To stay in business, I had to shift my mentality from maximizing production to minimizing risk.
The early and mid-eighties were bad times in production agriculture. We saw many producers go out of business. Here we are today with the same picture. Has this happened because we are so efficient and do not need as many farmers? Yes, producers have become more efficient, but that's only part of the picture. If we look at the graph at right, we see a trend of declining market value of products sold and increasing production costs. We are now at the point where the lines are coming together. Obviously, to stay viable as producers we must expand the middle.
How do we do this? I heard a story many years ago about a cotton farmer that was not making it on the farm. He went to visit his banker, ready to throw in the towel. The banker looked him in the eye and said "You and your wife get in the car and start driving. You drive until you find someone that is making it and doing it right and you find out everything he is doing and then you go back home and do the same." The point here is that change has to be made. We must educate ourselves about how to make changes. If traditional agricultural is failing us but we want to continue, then what changes need to be made?
We at NF have the privilege to attend state and national conferences, field days and seminars. We also get to pick up ideas from your farm that you have found successful. This is of great benefit to us in advising others. The following are thoughts I have gleaned from meetings or from you, to expand the middle and bring wealth back to the farm.
The Market Side
Direct sales. You would be surprised by the number of producers that have become involved in direct sales to the consumer. While attending an agricultural conference in Georgia, I heard about producers who were selling vegetables, eggs, beef and poultry directly to consumers. Most of these producers had found a niche market by producing these products organically. As a side note, organics are a rapidly growing market. In a recent survey of consumers, 53% indicated they preferred organically produced products.
I am a strong believer in having a minimum of three enterprises per farm. This in itself is a hedge for offsetting one enterprise that is having a bad year because of low prices. It would be beneficial if one or more of these enterprises had direct sales to the consumer.
Networking. In some areas, producers are pooling products of like quality in truckload lots. By so doing, producers can eliminate middlemen and bargain for better prices. The cotton industry and vegetable growers have accomplished this.
What can you and your neighbors do together that would bring wealth back to you as individuals or to your community? Have you ever thought of your neighbors as a resource for your operation? I am reminded of the Amish community I visited in Ohio a few years back. They have what is called an "order" that is made up of about 25 families. Each family is independent, yet they are responsible for helping each other in sharing labor and equipment. They think of each other as assets and are willing to assist each other, beyond just being friends, so the community will advance as a whole.
Sell it before you produce it. This is the ultimate answer for restoring wealth to agriculture, but the most difficult to accomplish.
Joe Salatin, a Virginia farmer, has about 400 customers that he sells to directly. He gets a commitment from them for what they want in the way of products (beef, eggs, pork, poultry, etc.) and negotiates prices. He then produces based on the demand. He has written a book and produced a video of his innovative ideas for generating wealth on his farm.
Adding farm related enterprises. We have one cooperator that cashes in on the holiday season by smoking turkeys and hams. Another has added trucking to his line of enterprises.
The Production Side
No-till farming. This is the fastest growing practice in production agriculture today. It makes sense to do the necessary things to save soil from erosion, and to conserve moisture and plant nutrients. Also, there is the potential to downsize on equipment. All the technology is in place for no-till farming. It's a matter of educating ourselves to do it.
Crop rotation. Crop rotation is as old as agriculture. The Amish have a unique system of crop rotation: first year - corn, second year - oats, third year - oats or barley, and the fourth and fifth years - a sod crop such as alfalfa or a red clover grass mix. Then the cycle repeats. Crop rotation removes the host so that insects, weeds and diseases can not build to damaging populations.
Cell grazing or rotational grazing. This practice creates multiple benefits, both primary and secondary. Primary benefits are increased production, increased forage quality and better animal performance. Secondary benefits include increased soil health, lessened insect and parasite problems, decreased labor, more efficient forage use, weed and brush control, tread-in-seed and easier livestock handling. Rotation will aid in growing a diversity of forage species that will spread out the grazing season. Legumes can be grown in improved pastures that can lower the production cost per animal unit.
Multi-species grazing. We pay big bucks to control weeds and brush in our pastures. A NF cooperator has expanded his operation by adding goats to control serecia lespedeza, blackberries and sumac that were invading pastures. Instead of spending money in an attempt to control these plants, they are now an asset to his operation after conversion salable products.
People ranching. Will urban folks pay to come to your ranch? At a recent meeting in Texas, a rancher gave a program on people ranching and stated that this was their leading enterprise. He even built an artificial bat cave to attract bats so folks could watch bats migrate out in the evenings. Bird watching, other wildlife and walking trails are things that attract urban consumers.
Vertical integration. In the beef cattle business there are several phases of production including the cow/calf, stocker, feedlot and packer phase. Can you add wealth through retained ownership by adding another phase? This may be the only way that you can get paid for having superior genetics. In direct marketing, all phases are covered.
This list could go on. The idea here is to determine what you can do with your resources to restore wealth by being flexible and open minded . It may mean a change and an investment in education to learn about things that are working. If it is not working, don't blame others. You are the one that makes the decisions.