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Published December 14, 2010, 08:56 AM

Good years in agriculture require public relations skills

The past few years have been pretty sweet for many area farmers. Yes, some producers, especially ones with livestock, have struggled through no fault of their own. And yes, many producers, again through no fault of their own, sold a lot of grain too soon or too late and missed the best prices.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The past few years have been pretty sweet for many area farmers.

Yes, some producers, especially ones with livestock, have struggled through no fault of their own. And yes, many producers, again through no fault of their own, sold a lot of grain too soon or too late and missed the best prices.

But on balance, the past four years have been as good as it gets for grain farmers. Terrific yields and attractive prices have combined to produce strong profits overall.

As one area farmer told me in fall 2007, “I never dreamed I’d make this much money in one year.”

He was a good guy and no braggart. He simply was making a spontaneous statement of fact, one based on the wonderful yields and prices he’d enjoyed.

Of course, the words barely were out of his mouth before he regretted them.

“But my inputs are going way up, so it’s really not all that good a year,” he added hastily.

Well, yes and no. The cost of his inputs were rising, but nonetheless, he had enjoyed an extremely profitable year.

I didn’t blame him for backpedaling. Farmers take a lot of guff from the public when times in ag are good, so they naturally want to downplay their successful years.

The thing is, there’s an art to the downplaying. Mention the negatives, sure, but don’t go too far.

During the past four years, I’ve heard quite a few farmers respond to talk of good yields and prices. Some of the comments are more artful than others.

The less-savvy responses go something like this:

“Our expenses are shooting through the roof. People don’t appreciate their cheap food. They won’t realize how good they have it until we go out of business.”

Well, maybe so. But do comments like that really win friends and influence people outside agriculture?

I’ve also heard farmers respond to talk of big profits with comments like this:

“Yeah, we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a few good years, but farming is really cyclical. To stay in business, we need a few good years to offset the bad ones that always come along.”

Responses like that — ones that acknowledge good fortune but also gently point out economic reality — are more effective than complaints about lack of appreciation, it seems to me.

Decisions, decisions

Years ago, when I was still a farm kid, I first heard the adage that it’s the decisions farmers make when times are good that are most important.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what that means:

Most farmers can cut expenses to the bone and scrape by a year or two when times are tough. But mistakes made during the good times — paying too much for land, for example — can prove insurmountable when things return to normal.

That adage may never have been more true than it is right now.

So enjoy the good times.

Remember the decisions you make today can have consequences for years to come.

And try to say the right things to the public.

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