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Are You Smart Enough to Farm Today?

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This is the time of year when agricultural literacy gets a lot of attention. This past week was Ag Literacy Week, an initiative sponsored by Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom project, which focuses on educating grade school students on the importance of agriculture. The just concluded FFA Week saw a lot of high school students talking about the importance of agricultural education. In just a few weeks, we will celebrate National Ag Day, when again there will be an effort to inform consumers about the contribution of agriculture to our economy and our society. But after attending several winter farm meetings the past few months, I have determined there is another kind of agricultural literacy that needs attention: farmer literacy. The basic process of producing food for a modern hungry world has become technologically sophisticated, economically complex, and regulated to the point of incomprehensibility.

I spoke recently with a former Ohio State economist who postulates that a grain farming operation is really 6 different business units: agronomy, land ownership, futures speculations, grain elevation, custom machine operation, and capital allocation.  Dr. Matt Roberts said each segment must be as efficient and forward thinking as possible to survive in the times ahead. I would add accounting, regulatory compliance, and computer programing to the list.

While attending a seed meeting, I heard a Purdue Extension educator say a farmer needs to read the label on each chemical product they use at least 7 times.  In addition, some labels will require the farmers to then visit a web site for last minute updates. These labels have the force of law and off label use has serious legal consequences.  Interpreting what you read on the label is another challenge. Many have “do not spray” requirements that are vague and confusing. For example, do not spray if the habitat of a “threatened or endangered species” is downwind. I guess we need to add wildlife expert to that list above. Oh, and don’t forget that after you are done using those crop protection products, you need to wash the containers and equipment used three times.

Today almost any activity you perform on a farm must be documented and those records kept. Fortunately, technology is now collecting all that data and more and putting it at our fingertips. We can now document where each seed in planted in a field, who manufactured the seed and its lineage, the soil type in which it was planted, everything that is applied to that plant either above the ground or below, the weather conditions that plant experienced during the entire growing cycle, and what that plant yielded at harvest.  We also now have programs and services that will analyze this overwhelming amount of data and, in theory, help us make better decisions for the next growing season. Of course, a farmer must learn how to use all this technology by reading thousands of pages of instructions written by a computer programmer.

So, are you smart enough to be a farmer? For me, and most of the American population, the answer is no.  The kind of temperament, intellect, and education needed to be a farmer today and into the future is rare.  These individuals need to be identified and facilitated so they can take over the vital task of producing the food our world will need. Farmers’ markets and urban agriculture are great, but those are not going to feed the world. Future farmers will need to possess many of the characteristics of their grandparents, but will also need a skill set never dreamed of by that generation.  Farmer literacy is just as important as agricultural literacy.

By Gary Truitt