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Ford Baldwin Column Art

Med school? Or working with farmers? ‘Ultimately, I went with my heart’

I never met a farmer that I did not like or want to spend time around. That is what has made writing this column for 40 years fun and rewarding.

When I wrote a column for the Delta Farm Press 50th anniversary edition in 1993, I never dreamed I would be writing one for the 75th edition. It has been a heck of a ride! 

In my remarks at the recent Ag Hall of Fame induction, I mentioned just a few people who have opened doors for me during my career. One of the most significant was Bill McNamee, then editor and publisher of Delta Farm Press. I received a telephone call from him some 40 years ago, and without boring you with the details, he asked me to write a weekly column for the publication. It scared me to death! 

But Bill had a persuasive way about him, and I eventually — and reluctantly — agreed to give it a try. He gave me some writing tips that stuck with me, and the rest is history. 

I have received more feedback from my Delta Farm Press articles than everything else in my career combined. There is no doubt the articles opened a lot of doors.Ford Baldwin photo

When I began my career with the University of Arkansas in 1974, the new herbicide screening program was by far the largest component of the weed science program. There were perhaps 20 chemical companies, and all had active herbicide screening programs. For the first half of my career, new herbicides were coming at us from every direction. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, and assumed it would always be that way.

RESISTANCE? NOT TO WORRY 

I was taught by well-meaning professors that weeds couldn’t develop resistance to herbicides because they couldn’t make generations quickly enough. They were wrong. But as resistance or species shifts occurred, we had new herbicides coming along that were better than the ones we had anyway. We thought it would always be that way.

When I began my career, farmers had just experienced the boom years of the early 1970s, and they never dreamed a person could have to pay that much income tax. We thought agriculture had finally arrived and it would always be that way. 

Then the 1980s hit, bringing drought, low commodity prices, and high input costs. Farmers had to get extremely creative to stay in business — and a lot didn’t make it.

PIPELINE DRIED UP

Fast forwarding to today, everything has changed in the weed world. The new herbicide pipeline dried up, and our last new herbicide mode of action is now over 30 years old.

Industry consolidation has dramatically reduced the number of companies looking for new herbicides. Increased regulation, and the fact that all of the easy stuff has been found, will make new technology very slow to come in the future. Companies are engineering plants to tolerate some of the older herbicides, but these solutions are short-term at best, and the weeds are rapidly adapting to all of our technologies. 

On the farming side, it seems as if things are not much different from the 1980s. Commodity prices are relatively low, input costs are high, and it seems we are always either in a drought or flooded. 

Farmers see the tremendous production efficiency gained with Roundup Ready technology being eroded away. A lot of farmers are either being forced out, or are choosing to get out while they can. And not many young folks are getting in. 

Ironically, the farmer is the only one in the agricultural sector who isn’t essentially guaranteed a profit.

BRIGHT MINDS NEEDED

The challenges in agriculture are going to be much different going forward than for much of my writing career. When I was growing up, the perceived smartest kids — the Most Likely to Succeeds in the yearbooks — were expected to go to medical school, engineering school, law school, etc. 

The more scholastically challenged like me went to aggie schools. 

Every time I speak now where kids are in the audience, I tell them that we need some of our brightest minds in agriculture. We face tremendous challenges in all agricultural disciplines, and the easy answers aren’t there any more. We are in a technology drought in a lot of areas, all the while world population continues to grow. Our government seems oblivious, instead choosing to believe industry will solve all our problems, like they did for years. 

It may surprise some that I actually got accepted to medical school at the end of the first year into my Ph.D., program and I had just 14 days to decide my fate. My brain said, “Go to medical school.” But my heart said, “I want to work with farmers.” 

Ultimately, I went with my heart — I never met a farmer that I did not like or want to spend time around. That is what has made writing this column for 40 years fun and rewarding.

EDITOR’S NOTE

It was like old times, editing this Ford Baldwin column — something I’ve not done for a lot of years.

Ford and I were both a lot younger when he began writing for Delta Farm Press and I was responsible for editing his column each week.

In those days, we had Extension and research specialists galore writing for us, on a wide variety of topics, from agronomy to fertility to animal husbandry to taxes. Over the decades, many moved up the ladder to other responsibilities, or left for a corporate job, or retired. Too many, alas, have died.

Although he long ago left Extension for his own business, Ford is the only one of all those specialists who still is writing for us regularly.

His column has been one of the most popular and well-read of my 43-plus years with Farm Press.

—Hembree Brandon

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