Decades ago, a 40-something North Dakota cattle rancher told me he was thinking about moving out of beef and into buffalo. U.S. consumers increasingly liked bison, and so the meat seemed to hold profit potential. In the end, though, he stuck with cattle; he thought he was just a little too old to make the needed changes.
Well, I question the too-old part; but he made the right decision. The beef industry held up better than he had expected, while the bison market did more poorly than anticipated. Please note: I'm not saying beef or bison is overall better, nor am I cheering on one at the expense of the other. I hope both buffalo and beef thrive in coming years.
Rather, my point is that nobody is smart enough or wise enough to always make the perfect decision. There's an old saying about not letting the quest for perfection get in the way of the achievable. That said, I think there are long-term trends that we can safety assume will be true — and something to calculate in our farming plans. Here are a few:
- Farm machinery has been getting bigger for decades, and almost certainly will continue to do so. Like others in ag, though, I question whether machinery, though suitable size for fields, will become too big for roads.
- Farmer and ranchers will continue to become more efficient. Though regulations are always a concern, ag producers clearly are producing more food with fewer inputs.
- Ag research remains outstanding. It continues to provide farmers with better tools such as crop varieties that hold up better in drought.
- It isn't just farm managers in ag who are improving. Ag bankers and others in ag are getting more and better training, and they're passing along that extra skill to clients.
- Knowledge of natural aspects of farming, such as cover crops, is growing. That's a huge long-term benefit.
- The world's population continues to grow, and its increasingly well-paid workforce can pay for more high-end food.
To be sure, problems persist and not only ones related to price and weather. Too many urban residents don't care about ag realities and sadly are out of date. Too many people want to impose troublesome regulations. And too many Americans, under the guise of "America first," are hurting U.S. ag in order to benefit a handful of other U.S. industries.
But overall the pluses are huge.
Not a bad place for a career
And one last reason to be optimistic about ag's future, possibly the biggest. It offers an outstanding collection of job opportunities. Cattle and crops, marketing, the "hard" physical sciences, potential life in small towns, big cities or anywhere in between — ag continues to offer job opportunities in all of these.
I've been told of a college student who's still deciding whether to be a veterinarian or an ag marketer. A nice problem to have, right?
Good luck to her. Good luck to all of you involved in ag. Realize that no matter how careful you are, some of your projections will be wrong. But remember, too, that many of your projections will be right — giving you a fighting chance of success.