This week and next week all the classes in the agriculture program are taking tests. While writing these exams my mind wandered, as it occasionally does, to when I was a student taking similar course several decades ago and how much the science of agriculture has changed.
People living in a rural area like ours may be up on all the latest changes in our food production system but experience tells me that many are not. And study after study has shown the American public overall is fairly clueless as to how their food, fiber, and fuel are produced, let alone where these staples come from. I remember when I was in school that when people heard the term agriculture, they used terms like “aggie” or “clodhopper” and not in a positive way. Even today, most of us don’t understand the breadth of what modern agriculture entails, while enjoy the benefits of a cheap, safe, reliable food source.
Farming, no matter the crop or livestock, is rapidly becoming one of the most sophisticated, technologically advanced, productive industries in the developed world. While it is still possible to farm without a college education, it is certainly more difficult. Even with a college education, almost every producer is involved in a form of continuing education. To be successful and stay in business, you have to stay current on the latest information whether it’s the latest hybrid or herbicide or piece of technology. This information and training is provided by many public and private sources ranging from the USDA, K-State and Barton Community College to crop consultants, co-ops, seed companies, chemical companies, and fertilizer manufacturers. Regardless of the source of the information, the modern farmer has to be equipped with the knowledge and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what makes sense for their operation and what doesn’t.
And the breadth of knowledge a farmer needs in his head and at his fingertips involves more than just producing a crop or animal. Today’s producers must be savvy in marketing their products and maybe more importantly in obtaining yearly inputs, machinery, and lines of credit. A producer also needs to be familiar with the myriad of rules and regulations governing everything from pesticide application to FSA and NRCS regulations. Increasingly, a farmer needs to be a politician and work to protect his way of life in Topeka and Washington through groups like Farm Bureau and various producer and commodity groups. And producers need the skills to intelligently evaluate and defend what they do from groups questioning what they do and how they do it.
And in their spare time, they work on machinery, plant crops, and doctor cattle. With all required of them, farmers also need to locate services and individuals to assist and insure things are done in a timely and proper manner. These individuals include crop consultants, coop agronomists, lawyers and accountants. This requires another quality, critical thinking. Producers need critical thinking and analysis skills that allow them to process information from a variety of sources, both paid and unpaid, and make the right decision, not just agronomically but economically and even environmentally.
None of this is written to make you feel sorry for the average farmer or rancher. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know, and that’s a fair number, love what they do and can’t imagine another way of life. Maybe we just need to take a moment to really appreciate what it takes to produce all that food, fiber, and fuel while protecting the environment and staying in business.