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The world according to Lowell Catlett

Mike Wilson

February 17, 2007

4 Min Read

His long arms flailing, his face twisted, Lowell Catlett seems more of a mad man than a wise old prophet when he speaks to an audience. Yet, this former National FFA Officer and farm boy from Texas, now Dean at the College of Agriculture at New Mexico State University, always holds groups riveted as he articulates his vision of future trends, not just for agriculture, but for the world.

Catlett (left) had people on the edge of their seats when he spoke at the annual meeting of the American Society of Farm Managers and rural Appraisers in Atlanta last week, urging people to stop fretting over America's ability to produce things. "It's not production, it's distribution that is the issue,•bCrLf he says. 

That's because the new challenge is to serve the needs of the new consumer world, where personal choice and experience dominate every decision.

"We've eased out of a production world and into a phenomenal consumer world, and the consumer world is all about what you want, when you want it, and how you want it,•bCrLf he says. "We now have five generations in the work force; we used to have three. It's going to be a challenge learning how to deal with all those different consumers.•bCrLf

Catlett grew up on a ranch in Dalhart, Texas, fascinated with the world and its potential. He grew to love learning, inspired by his local high school ag teacher Ike Trimble. That's also when he became involved in FFA, first as a state officer and eventually as national officer in 1969. He graduated from West Texas State University with a B.S. in Agribusiness and went to grad school to become a professor of ag economics, inspiring students to do great things the same way his ag teacher once inspired him.

So what is this consumer world Catlett speaks of? It's all about choice and instant gratification. In the old world, you didn't expect to get what you wanted, when you wanted it. You might have to wait. No longer. Ebay, for example, allows you to go on the Internet and find that old comic book from 1965 that will allow you to complete the set you started 45 years ago.

"It provides what you want, where you want, when you want it — now,•bCrLf Catlett observes.

New technology allows people to express themselves and their most personal feelings in ways never before. Myspace is just one example. "Here's a place where people put the most private information about themselves for the world to see,•bCrLf says Catlett. "And there's YouTube — all of these worlds use words like •my,' and •you' - that's the new consumer world.•bCrLf

Catlett says he knows a CEO of a hospital who was so enthusiastic about making consumer services more user friendly that he said he wanted to install drive up blood and urine tests.

"Now, I could see maybe driving up and sticking my arm out for a blood test,•bCrLf says Catlett. "But the urine test•? Even so, this mentality is the new consumer world and it's here to stay.•bCrLf

Ipod mania. For 30 years, college kids have answered a survey on the most important item they need to get through college. Today the answer is •Ipod.' What does that say about the new consumer world?

"We had one in my generation - it was called a transistor radio,•bCrLf jokes Catlett. "But the difference is, I had to listen to what the radio station said I would listen to. In the panhandle of Texas, there was one radio station. The ipod provides what you want, when you want it. Last fall ipod celebrated its fifth birthday and is considered the most successfully adopted technology ever.•bCrLf

The same trend is happening in higher education. Catlett says he would teach a certain class only on Tuesday and Thursday, only in the fall, only at 9 a..m.only on campus in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Now students have choices, thanks to new technology. "100% of classes now have podcasts,•bCrLf he says. And so many universities allow students to learn oline. "You could come to Las Cruces on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and have me, or you can have a better class where you want it, how you want, and when you want it.•bCrLf

Surveys show that as of 2005, 30% of all college graduates will have attended three or more institutes of higher learning before graduating; in five years, he predicts that number will be up to five. "People will demand choices and it won't be just four years to graduate, it will be five or seven years,•bCrLf he says.

What happens after college is even more surprising.

"In the old days, you went to find a job after college,•bCrLf Catlett says "We went to work and we went wherever the job was. But four months ago when we interviewed prime workers 20 to 30 years old, two thirds said they would find a place they like to live first, then they would find work.

"This will change the very essence of community, because if communities don't believe they need good schools or broadband or hospitals, you will not be on the radar screen for these new people in the workforce.•bCrLf

What do you think? Please comment below.

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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