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November 6, 2020
Editor’s note: Kansas State economist Barry Flinchbaugh passed away Nov. 2, 2020. These are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Flinchbaugh at the 2020 Farm Futures Business Summit.
Flinchbaugh: It’s so satisfying. Part of Manhattan, KS (home of Kansas State) is called Aggieville, where the bars are. I had a student named Mike who majored in Aggieville. Today he’s probably the most influential lobbyist in ag policy. As I used to tell his mother, “Be patient, he will grow up. He has a good mind and will focus on economics.” I’m very proud of Mike because I helped him get where he is, even though many times I wanted to kick his ass.
Flinchbaugh: I’m a product of a one-room school. My old maid aunt was my teacher for eight years. Every part of my education - from that school to Ph.D. -- I had a teacher who personally took an interest in me. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be sitting here. And I’m attempting to do the same thing ever since I started teaching at K-State.
The reason my classes are always full is, the word is out the old man cares what happens to me personally. You can’t fake that; it’s either genuine or not, and students can smell it. If they have a problem, you gotta help them. Some professors are rigid and have a lot of rules. But if you roll with the punches and a student has a problem, you help them.
One thing that’s occurring today, is that it’s reciprocated. Today’s students care. We care about each other and work together, and that’s what’s missing in Washington – they don’t work together and don’t care for each other.
Flinchbaugh: I’ve clearly learned there’s a lot of farmers who really have their heads screwed on and know what they’re doing. The old image of the dumb farmer is pretty well gone. If they survived the ‘80s and now the teens, why, they got their act together and know what they’re doing.
The best compliment I ever had was from a farmer in Colby, KS -- at the end of a meeting he shook his finger and said, “I don’t agree with a thing you said!” I said, “Great minds differ.” A few minutes later he said, “Next time you come to town I’ll be here.” He didn’t agree with me, but he had an open mind.
Flinchbaugh: I would pay their way home just six times a year, not every weekend; I want them to stay in Washington, get to know each other, play together so they’ll work together. One of (former republican U.S. Senator) Bob Dole’s best friends was (the late Democratic U.S. Senator) Ted Kennedy. Barry Goldwater was friends with President Jack Kennedy; Tip O’Neill was friendly with President Reagan. That is rare today. The human element is removed, and when you remove that, in classrooms or Congress, your ability to rise to the occasion, compromise, and collaborate, is gone.
Flinchbaugh: They give a damn about each other. What’s happened in the last five years, A and B students are a bigger bunch, and there’s fewer C and D students. No, I’m not getting soft in my old age, they’re just more engaged, attentive, and work at it. Plus, they’re moderates politically – not extremists. That’s really important because right now we’re controlled by extremists on either end. These folks don’t think, they just drink the Kool-Aid.
Ten years ago, I would encourage students to get together in groups of four or six to study and quiz each other the night before an exam. They wouldn’t do it because they thought it brought them more competition; now, they do it and learn from each other. So they all rise instead of just a few. I think that speaks well to this generation.
If you work with young people as we do, you can’t help but be encouraged. I go home at night wound up.
Flinchbaugh: Management is still going to be the bottom line, there’s no substitute. In the ag policy world, we’ve got programs decoupled from production and that made us more competitive; In the U.S. we got rid of the ‘price floor’ until now. These MFP payments are changing that. We’re getting too close to government again.
Flinchbaugh: I’ve preached for 30 years that commodity groups must work more closely together, but they won’t listen. Wheat people like to complain cotton gets all the money; or southerners look after themselves and the Midwest gets screwed, or whatever. We tried to form a wheat council that had everyone from the seed geneticists to end users like Walmart, and we finally had to give up after 10 years. People didn’t want to communicate among different commodities.
My grandmother said you don’t wash your dirty linen in public; commodity groups tend to wash their dirty linen in public and wonder why they get a bad rap instead of working together and compromising behind the scenes. Then they chew out the politicians because they don’t want to compromise.
One farm family I know has three boys and a girl, all very capable in their 30s. The old man is in his 70s and won’t give up control, so the kids left. I’ve tried to reason with him, nothing works. Then he complains when his kids won’t come home and I say, “slavery ended with the civil war.”
If you want people to behave reasonably you have to give them a piece of the action and let them make some mistakes.
Flinchbaugh: I’ve gotten what I call old fart awards - you get so old they put plaques on the wall. But the highlight of my career was the passage of the ‘96 Farm Bill, which I worked so hard on with then-congressman Pat Roberts.
When I first went to Kansas, property taxes were a big issue, so I was hired to do policy meetings on property tax. Everybody said I wouldn’t survive, and the professors extended their sympathies. I not only survived, I consulted with the legislators, the governor, and the reforms got put in play. I joked I could live on that reputation for a decade.
The reason I survived and became a respected voice is, I didn’t tell them what to do; I discussed the alternatives with them, the consequences, and they decided what to do.
Flinchbaugh: In the end, my legacy really is my former students and the young farmers that I helped. All I want on my headstone is, “He cared.”
Other coverage on Flinchbaugh:
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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