Friday, July 10, 2015


February 1996

Recently, I read an article about college education and farmers.  The purpose was to try to see if higher education was beneficial for farmers.  The yardstick was the usual one - MONEY.   If a college education makes you more money, it's a good idea.  If not, it's a waste of time.   Pretty straightforward logic.   However, it doesn't seem to cover the issue for me.

My father attended college only briefly before returning to the farm to replace a brother at war.  While he never actually complained of the missed opportunity, he raised four children to assume that they would graduate from college, just like high school.  Now as a father of teenagers, I am beginning to realize how great an accomplishment that was.  Also, how expensive!   My parents were not alone.   A large number of children raised on farms were encouraged to continue school, and now populate the ranks of active farmers.   As an industry, however, we seem to be ambivalent on the benefits of higher education.

I have spoken to others with similar educational histories and am not alone in feeling that I must be very careful when I speak about the benefits of college.   Part of the verbal code of conduct for farmers is to not demean others.    Talk about college or the display of knowledge can be construed as showing off, or trying to appear better than others.  It is safer socially to affect an outward mediocrity that does not offend.   This includes agreeing that philosophy, calculus, and literature courses are nonsensical additions to a farmer's life.   The only acceptable excuse for attending college then becomes immediate and demonstrable financial gain.

Many of us have gone along with this charade all our lives, and are wearying of it.   Now that I am the father, I realize that belittling my education also belittles my parent's sacrifices for me to get this education.   I also have come to understand how profoundly it changed my life for the better.   So I offer these justifications for higher education.

  1. Chip Removal:   There is frequently a quiet sense of resentment between people, even friends, with and without degrees.   While I agree absolutely that education does not necessarily make a person better, neither does it necessarily make someone worse.  Finishing college allowed me to meet all kinds of people without having to assume a defensive stance.  This means that I stand eye-to-eye with professionals and executives from all walks of life, without any need to put up a strong front.   If we only had to deal with hometown friends, this would mean little, but the odds are we are going to have to do our business with landlords and vendors with considerable education.  A common educational experience speeds the process of turning acquaintances into friends.
  2. Flexibility:   It is a subtle process, but continued education has helped many deal with wrenching changes that seem to come with increasing speed.   The world as it is can be mastered by persistent trial and error investigation.   The tricky part is to prepare for the world as it will be tomorrow.   Older farmers can draw upon their own experiences, the accumulated data from the famed "school of hard knocks".   Younger farmers do not possess this resource, and must either borrow from mentors around them (Dad, Grandpa), or access the wisdom of thousands who have gone before (education), in addition to traditional sources.
  3. Ace-in-the-hole:  During the 1980's, there we many instances when Jan and I were discouraged about our farming future.  The possession of a marketable skill, obtained through college, even at entry level salaries, helped keep away a sense of despair.  Those days were not much fun and my degree provided some badly needed reassurance.
  4. World enlargement:  Recent trade agreements have made us more than ever producers for a global market.  A minor in economics has been invaluable to us to plan our long-term strategy.  I have also noticed that many of our most formidable competitors are extremely well educated. Also, our personal world is much larger as a result of our college experiences.  Keeping in touch with these old friends prevents the tunnel vision that can result from a closed community.
  5. Political image:  The "Old MacDonald" image may have served us well during the days of justifying subsidies, but it may not be the professional impression we want to leave with the critics of agriculture who claim we can't be trusted to treat the environment properly.  Engaging in dialog with these groups will require producers that can at least speak the language, and more importantly, appear in public to be as competent as we truly are.
  6. Technological advantage: The producer who can make the early decision about new technology will reap the greatest reward.  It is not necessary for you to be on the "bleeding edge" of technological change, but you must always keep in mind that your competitor, here and around the world, probably is.  Education is the single greatest advantage you can give yourself in this arena.
  7. Self Esteem: Believe it or not, they don't hand college degrees out willy-nilly.  Those who feel degrees mean little are often those who have not accomplished this task.   

In the end perhaps, it depends on how you view production agriculture.  Its long tradition of "sweat-measured" success perhaps does not gauge all the skills now needed to compete.  To comply with regulations alone means farmers must either engage the services of outside professionals or develop those skills personally.  We are not the only industry to see this change.   Some critics of increased education point out that a degree does not guarantee a job today.  While the expected high-paying jobs are not as easily found now, it does mean an army of well-educated job seekers will be strong competitors for lower level jobs traditionally held by high school grads.  

Of course, other factors can make a big difference in farming success.  Picking your parents carefully, or marrying shrewdly, or following a family

member can get you started.  The competition, however, will determine if you stay.  This competition is showing up very well armed lately.  At the very least, I am willing to let the flow of history decide which point of view is correct.   Twenty years from now, I believe that producers who have made the effort and sacrifice to advance their education will be the dominant force in our industry, both in terms of production and leadership.

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