Agriculture is a funny business. A few hundred thousand business farmers make a bet every season with the idea of a payoff at harvest. A lot is on the line every year, and it’s a challenge few would accept. Remember, if farming was easy, everyone would do it.
But are there ways you can change the rules? Turn your experience into new knowledge that will help you overcome the volatility and the changing nature of the business? There’s a concept that’s been bubbling around the last few years, and I’m seeing it more often — the need to be a lifelong learner.
It’s not an easy statement. And often the need to learn something new comes at the worst possible time, like a collapse in grain prices. Yet it’s a topic that merits some exploration, especially given the way new technology is quickly reshaping parts of the industry.
Dr. David Kohl, professor emeritus, Virginia Tech, gives presentations across the country offering a range of ideas and case histories for farmers to consider. Throughout his talks, however, the key message is that being a lifelong learner can pay off.
Farmers, by nature, have to adapt faster than some. The rise of new-tech crops can make a difference, but your business model could be changing, too. This can force you to rethink how you’re doing things. Perhaps lack of labor is forcing you to consider reshaping the farm for fewer acres; or, you may consider bigger equipment to get the same work done.
It’s not an easy comment. Part of my job is covering new technology for agriculture, and in the past five years, I’ve encountered new ideas for concepts I didn’t think would ever hit our industry. Yet today, we’re closer to automated equipment than ever before, and the tools you have for business analysis are more in-depth than ever.
And the industry is just getting warmed up.
These changes can be overwhelming, but don’t tell yourself they’re for the young. Us oldsters can take on new tools and learn to use them, too. Setting up a new combine or refining your boundary maps to make spring planting more efficient doesn’t have to be a job for the young. You can learn it, too.
Of course, if you have next-generation farmers coming into the operation, consider ways they can leverage new tech to add value to your business. But we’re talking more than just adapting technology.
Your current business model could be outdated. Are you raising the right crops? Could there be new crops — provided you can find a market — that work better? The varied agriculture of the West can be a boon for those willing to take on new challenges. Of course, you’ll have to be ready to learn new things.
Back to basics
If you’re taking on a new endeavor, here are some thoughts on key issues to consider:
• Market access. If you’re raising a new crop for your area, where will you sell it? How far is the nearest selling point, and how do you price that into the mix?
• Ag knowledge. If you take on a new crop — from hemp to onions — do you know how to raise that crop efficiently? Where will you turn for help?
• Investment needs. What might you need to raise the new crop? If it’s a new, big piece of equipment, don’t shy away from the idea; consider custom help, or pencil out the new machine based on all you know about the market.
• Pricing and your wallet. Is the new business going to require you to change your risk management plan? Is there a contract market for the new crop or livestock? Can you leverage that for a greater return?
It’s simple for me to sit at my computer and lay out this scenario. Over the years, I’ve had to learn plenty — and for a grandpa, that’s not always easy. But I keep plugging away so my mind doesn’t atrophy. It’s something to consider.
Being a lifelong learner can help you stack the farm gamble deck in your favor. Avoid saying to yourself “I’m too old to learn that new stuff.” It’ll help.