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In defense of changing our minds

I know a guy — you might know someone like him — who hardly ever changes his mind. Once he forms an opinion, he's locked in. Doesn't matter what the experts say. Doesn't matter what's in front of his eyes. He won't budge. And there's no point in trying to engage him in a respectful discussion of the issue: his response is a glare and a defiant, "I'm right!"

That attitude is unwise for modern agriculturalists. Ag is evolving so rapidly that all of us involved with it need to modify our thinking when reality dictates doing so.

I've had to do it many times through the years. Here are four examples:

Strong U.S. dollar

When I was 13 and fascinated by economics and politics, I came across the concept of "the strong U.S. dollar." To a patriotic North Dakota farm kid, that sure sounded good. But over the next year or so I figured out that a strong dollar makes our ag exports more expensive for foreign customers. A strong dollar wasn't so good after all.

My understanding of the facts improved, and so I changed my mind.

Size of ag equipment

In 1991 or 1992, I was driving on a rural gravel road when I saw a huge self-propelled crop sprayer in a nearby field. "The size of farm equipment must be maxed out. It can't get any bigger," I told myself.

A few years later, after the arrival of new and still-bigger ag equipment, I realized I'd been wrong and changed my mind. (In my own defense, I was hardly the only area agriculturalist to be mistaken about this.)

Cover crops

Once, I thought cover crops were a useful niche player — a tool with a real but limited role in Upper Midwest agriculture. I thought that because a lot of really smart farmers told me so.

But new research and improved technology since then have made cover crops a rising star, a mainstream tool increasingly used by a growing number of farmers. The facts changed, and so I changed my mind.

Climate change

A decade ago, I was thoroughly skeptical of the concept of man-made climate change, often called global warming back then. It seemed to me that nature was responsible for most, if not all, of whatever global warming actually existed. It also seemed to me that self-important, self-styled "elite" on the East and West coasts were trying to tell the rest of us what to think and believe.

A half-dozen years ago, I began to realize that most climate scientists said the scientific data strongly supported the case for man-made climate change. I started to rethink my take on the subject.

About four years ago, noting that the overwhelming majority of experts say climate change is real and that human activity is the primary cause, I realized I'd been wrong. So I changed my mind.

Changing our mind doesn't mean abandoning core values or compromising ethics. Honest financial dealings, respectful behavior toward neighbors, proper treatment of soil and animals — the need for these things remains constant and vital.

But technology changes. Economic conditions change. The experts' understanding of science and the physical world around us changes. And every change holds the possibility that some revision in our thinking might be advantageous or necessary or both.

Listening to people with views opposed to our own has value. Reading things with which we disagree has value. And learning what the relevant experts say is particularly prudent.

Changing my mind isn't easy for me. It probably isn't easy for you. But the willingness to do so, when warranted by the facts, makes us better agriculturalists.