Not down on the farm

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
Farmers have come through one of the worst years in regard to prices, almost across the board. Do you see some light at the end of the tunnel?

I think there?s room for optimism. Things are going to get better, I don?t doubt that at all. It?s not going to be a sudden turnaround. We may still have another year or two of difficult times. But we are seeing some improvements now, especially in beef and pork.

Then, as we get down the road and get our grain production a little more in line, there?s some real potential in agriculture in the next 10 years.

The net income of the average Kansas farmer was reported to be around $17,000 last year. How do Marion County farmers compare?

I couldn?t tell you yet. I?ll have some figures a little later. In our county, grain usually exceed livestock by a little bit in terms of total dollars of value. Livestock is up a little, but grains are down. I?d say we?d be close to the average just because of the diversity.

The agricultural scene is complicated, but in a nutshell, why have prices been so low?

The big thing is that exports on our products are down worldwide. We?ve over-produced and so we have a greater supply than what we can use in the United States. Then, the countries we have exported to in the past have experienced some difficult times with their economies.

We?ve lost our share of the world market. Some of the reasons are economic and some are political.

So, what is changing that makes you optimistic about the future?

What I?m optimistic about is that we are seeing some improvement in global economies. That?s going to reflect, eventually, on our product.

I think, too, that the government farm program has been a benefit. Farmers have more flexibility and can make some adjustments in what they grow. For the coming year, wheat acres are down. Farmers are reacting to that market?and that?s a change.

A new farm bill will be written in another year or two. If farmers have any say in the bill, they want to retain that flexibility. That?s key for them to be able to react to markets.

Farmers received a record amount of federal assistance through the Farm Service Agency this past year. As you look down the road, is federal assistance the key to farmers? survival?

It has been in the last few years. I don?t know if necessarily their financial assistance will be the key to survival, but their involvement and role in farming will still be key. Some of the things our government does around the world affect our producers in Marion County. We?ve seen that in the bans they?ve place on some countries in regard to exports.

I?m sure all of our producers hope we can get government more out of farming, but I don?t think government can ever get completely out because of the political and economic impact they have worldwide.

What?s the likelihood that we?ll see another round of farm bankruptcies and foreclosures in the next decade like we did 15 to 20 years ago?

Hopefully that won?t happen again. It will depend a lot on how interest rates go. The situation is different now than it was in the ?80s when inflation was so high.

We?re going to continue to see a decrease in the number of farmers, but I would hope it wouldn?t be because of foreclosures and bankruptcies.

In the real short term, unless we can change prices, it?s getting real difficult for our guys to hold on for another year or two. If we would get some low production because of weather conditions, then we?re more vulnerable to fall victim to them than we have been.

Farmers keep hearing that, in order to survive, they must become more efficient. Where is that heading, particularly in light of new technology?

Technology is sure going to play a big role in some of our farming practices, with precision agriculture and infra-red sensing and some of those things.

Within this next decade, it?s probably going to be small steps that will help farmers be more efficient because they have to look at the cost of implementing this new technology and whether it pays.

I think things like precision agriculture and GPS (global positioning satellites) are going to become more common within the next five to 10 years to the extent they help farmers fine-tune fields and be more efficient in some of their ag inputs.

It?s going to be a while longer before every farmer is going to be doing soil sampling on grids and those kinds of things.

In regard to livestock, farmers will need to use advances in genetics to be competitive and fit into niche markets. Our local farmers will need to utilize that technology and information to be able to produce the kind of product that they can get some extra value for, and that consumers are wanting.

Given ongoing technological advances, is there a limit to how efficient a farmer can get?

That is something they question. But for our producers to be competitive in the future, we?re going to have to change our business philosophy.

Our producers do a great job of management, especially day-to-day production kinds of things. But in the future, our farmers are going to have to take more of a business approach to farming.

Can they get more efficient? They?re going to have to figure their cost of production down to the bushel or hundred weight. They?re going to have set goals and plans, from a business management standpoint like our corporations do.

Corporations evaluate their situation, then they cut costs here, cut jobs there. Our farmers do that, but in the future, they?re going to have to apply that business management strategy more intently than what they have in the past.

When they ask, ?How much more efficient can I be?? I feel like asking them, ?Do you know how efficient you are now? What do you compare yourself with?? If they have the records to prove their efficiency, then that?s great.

One of the corporate business trends out there, of course, is mergers and acquisitions. Do you see the trend toward larger farms continuing?

I see that tend continuing, but I also think that maybe we?re going to revert to some practices we did a long time ago when farmers helped other farmers in terms of labor. I don?t know if it will be labor so much, but in the future it will be groups of farmers getting together and pooling resources for inputs.

Some of that is happening now, but I think we?ll see more farmers working together to get a better buy on chemicals, fuel, machinery and technology.

We?re going to get bigger, but maybe there?s the chance of our farmers forming groups and work together on some of those things.

Is that kind of collaboration the best hope for saving the family farm?

I think it is. Our family farms need to see how they fit into some of the big changes taking place in agriculture, like niche markets, alliances and some of the contract growing. Our farmers need to say, ?Corporate farms will be our competitors, but are there ways I can fit in and do my thing and still be an independent producer??

But if small farmer say, ?It?s me against them,? it?s going to be difficult for them.

The average age of farmers in Kansas continues to rise. What is the situation in Marion County and what will happen as our older farmers decide to retire?

Our average age is 50 to 55 years. What will happen when they retire is a real question. Hopefully, we?re still going to have younger farmers in our county who want to take that on.

That?s one reason why our farms will be getting larger.

Way down the road, I don?t know that we?ll see corporations taking over, but we?ll sure see larger family farmers, hopefully.

The other thing that will make it more challenging is that as the land changes ownership, some of it will be acquired by people and family members who aren?t directly involved in agriculture. It will challenge relationships between tenants and landlords.

We hear some talk about how farmers should get together and not just produce wheat, for instance, but actually bake the bread and then sell it. Is that idea going anywhere in the next decade?

The idea of value-added products is going to continue. As farmers look at those trends, they need to say, ?Are there ways of fitting into those?? and not be afraid of them.

The venture will have to be something that is economical for them and will pay them a good return. But I think those opportunities are going to increase in the future and our farmers need to least to be open to that and take advantage of the ones that will be a good for them.

Based on how you see the future of farming, and the trend toward larger farms, what career advice would you have for that middle school or high school kid who really wants to farm someday?

First, I?d sure encourage him or her to get as much education as possible, because it will be important to be as informed and up-to-date on the newest technology.

The other thing I?d say is that the family of this child needs to think about that, and start planning now to include him or her in the operation. We?re going to need those people.

I would hope that in the next 10 years, people in our country would come to value food and food production and the role it plays in feeding the world?and encourage those kids to come back. I think there?s opportunities for young people, but the planning has to start now.

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