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Published January 20, 2014, 10:54 AM

Farming difficulty rises a level

Years ago, back in the day, I tried out a new computer strategy game. After playing for an hour or so, I beat the computer and won the game.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Years ago, back in the day, I tried out a new computer strategy game. After playing for an hour or so, I beat the computer and won the game.

Trouble was, I’d set the game to the “easy” level. The computer had played poorly, making it relatively simple for me (or anyone else who played at that setting). I won even though I made mistakes.

So I reset the game to its “medium” level of difficulty and tried again. This time, the computer played much smarter. Eventually, however, I limited my mistakes and managed to win.

Finally, I reset the game to its highest setting, the “expert” level. The computer now played flawlessly and with the intelligence of Einstein. I lost again and again. Victory was possible, but only by investing many hours to master the game and eliminate my mistakes. Life is too short for that big a commitment, so I quit and never played again.

The ‘easy’ setting

Don’t send me angry emails. I’m not suggesting that farming is like a computer game. Nor am I suggesting that farming, even in the best of times, is easy. There’s too much to learn and too much that can go wrong for farming to ever be easy.

But it’s fair to say that most Upper Midwest farmers (the ones not hammered by drought or excess moisture, anyway) faced the “easy” level the past few years. High crop prices allowed producers to generate healthy profits even if they didn’t make ideal decisions. As one ag official once told me, “These high prices cover up a lot. You can make mistakes and still make money.”

Now, declining crop prices have reset Upper Midwest farming to the “medium” level. Profits are still possible, but only for farmers who limit their mistakes. That means holding down expenses, planting the best mix of crops and developing a good marketing plan.

Talk with your agronomist, your banker, your accountant, your extension service specialist, your farm business management consultant. Talk with whoever can give you expert advice that will help you limit mistakes and make better decisions.

Young farmers may face the biggest adjustment. Agriculture’s recent prosperity has encouraged many young adults to enter farming in recent years, and some of the newcomers have farmed only on the easy setting. The young farmers are smart, educated and determined (I know; I’ve talked with many of them), and their intelligence and education told them the good times weren’t permanent. Even so, there’s no substitute for personal experience.

Could be worse

Farming on the medium setting isn’t the worst thing in the world. There have been long stretches when Upper Midwest agriculture was set on the “expert” level. Even the most skilled, determined farmers — the ones who do just about everything right — struggle on the expert setting. There’s no sign, at least for the foreseeable future, that we’ll reset to that level of difficulty.

For now, we’re on the medium setting. No, that isn’t as profitable or as much fun as the easy level. But medium, though more demanding, is winnable, too. I’m confident that most area farmers are up to the challenge.