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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

How to spot good farmers

A few years ago, a non-farmer asked me how he could tell whether a farmer is doing a good job. Reading between the lines, it appeared he was trying to check up on one of his in-laws, a farmer to whom the non-farmer rented land. Having no desire to get involved in family intrigue, I gave this honest but bland answer:

Good farmers typically have neat, tidy farmsteads. There's little or no junk. Buildings are properly maintained. Equipment is parked or stored in a relatively orderly way. The connection isn't perfect, but the correlation usually holds up. Evaluate the farmstead, and you'll have a pretty fair idea of whether the farmer is a good one.

People a lot smarter than me use that method to judge whether a farmer is "good" or not, and so I felt safe in passing it along to the non-farmer. But there's more to be said, a fuller answer to be given.

First, let's define a "good" farmer as an ag producer who, over time, efficiently, sustainably and profitably raises and markets crops or livestock or both. (Yes, I realize that even good farmers will be hard-pressed to be profitable this year.)

Ag-savvy readers will note the "raises and markets" in the definition. And they'll agree, I think, that most farmers do pretty well at raising their product. And I think they'll also agree that marketing crops and livestock is difficult, a task at which many ag producers can and should improve. There isn't enough space here to properly explain why so many farmers are challenged by marketing.

Raising crops and, to a lesser extent, livestock is a fairly public affair. Neighbors who routinely drive by a farmer's fields or pastures almost always know whether that farmer is doing a good job. But marketing is largely private; only the farmer's banker or accountant knows whether the farmer is good at it. As a result, it's difficult, if not impossible, for the rest of us to be certain whether a farmer fits the definition of a "good" farmer given above.

Assessments also are complicated by the inevitable, unavoidable role of luck. A quick hypothetical example: Farmer A enjoyed timely, plentiful rains in both the 2017 and 2018 growing seasons and consequently enjoyed good yields, too. Farmer B, a neighbor of Farmer A, had too little rain in 2017, too much rain in 2018 and consequently suffered poor yields both years. Farmers A and B may be equally "good," but because of luck, Farmer A was more successful, at least in that two-year period.

Enough with the disclaimers. Here's the criteria I think can be used to judge farmers:

Good farmers are always looking to improve, always searching for ways to strengthen their operation. Evolving science, technology and farming practices provide new options annually, and good farmers constantly evaluate whether there's a better way of doing something.

As one farmer once told me, "You can never be satisfied." Good farmers have the humility to know there's always more to learn and the self-confidence to explore new options and, when appropriate, to implement them. Not-so-good farmers tend to be stuck in their ways, unwilling or unable — or both — to make beneficial changes.

This isn't a perfect measure, I know, but I think it's usually reliable when judging a farmer's skill.

And if you lack the time or inclination to evaluate a farmer's willingness to change with the times, check out his or her farmstead. That can still work, too.