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Jonathan Knutson

The lessons of 2019: What we (re)learned

There are people, or so I'm told, who write down the lessons they learn during the year — and then, late in the year, review the written list to reinforce the lessons. That would never work for me. I learn so much every day that I'd be hard-pressed to write down everything, much less study the list at year's end.

But the many challenges of 2019 have taught me (or rather retaught me) some important lessons about agriculture. I suspect this list contains things that many Agweek readers also have relearned in the past year.

Mitigating risk

Mitigate. Reduce. Limit. Moderate. Control. Manage. Whatever verb you prefer, there's no realistic disagreement about the need to limit the impact of risk on an agricultural business. Mitigating risk is easier said than done, of course, but prudent ag producers work hard to do it.

Ag exports

It's impossible to overestimate the importance of ag exports. Just one example: more than half of U.S. wheat is exported.

Decide for yourself if President Donald Trump's controversial trade policies ultimately will help U.S. ag exports. All I know is, those policies have done far more harm than good so far.

Decisions, decisions

Years ago, my father, a now-retired North Dakota farmer, told me that the financial decisions we make in good times are much more important than the ones we make in tough times. In ag terms, that means farmers who respond prudently when ag is profitable better position themselves to ride out the lean years.

During the ag boom of 2008-13, many farmers wisely used their profits to update machinery, to purchase or rent land at sensible prices or otherwise strengthen their operation. Some farmers, sadly, expanded imprudently or even recklessly, in effect gambling that the good times would continue indefinitely.

Don't write nasty emails. I'm not saying that every farm operation struggling today made bad decisions during the boom. I realize perfectly well that other factors, such as uncooperative weather or operators' ill health, can be in play, too.

But there's no denying that, overall, farmers who made good decisions in the good times are more likely to survive these tough times.

Emotional challenges

The financial and physical challenges of modern agriculture are obvious, at least to those of us involved in it. Less obvious, or perhaps just discussed less often, are the emotional challenges.

Stress, frustration, depression — these have been all too common this crop season. And the lesson to relearn is that people struggling with emotional challenges need to get help.

Mother Nature

I once mentioned to an agronomist my belief that weather ultimately determines the relative success of a crop season. He nodded and said, "Yeah, Mother Nature always wins."

Well, to quibble a bit, nature is neither feminine nor a living entity. But his point (and mine) are valid. Precipitation and temperature, and the timing of each, trump hard work and good planning every time. The painful 2019 crop season proves that all too well.

To all of you who had to relearn painful lesions in 2019, my condolences. And my best wishes for a more favorable 2020.

There's another lesson modern ag sometimes reteaches us: agriculture is cyclical, and good times eventually do return. Let's all hope that happens soon.