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'Is going into ag a mistake?'

There's good reason to be optimistic about ag's future, even if the present is difficult.

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Jonathan Knutson

A few years ago, a woman from outside agriculture asked me a question. Her college-age grandson was planning a career in ag sales, and she wondered if he was making a wise choice.

"I've heard there are so many ups and downs in agriculture. Is going into it a mistake?" she said.

I cautiously said that while I believed in ag's future, I didn't know her grandson or the product/service he wanted to sell. She pressed me for an answer, and I said, "Well, you're right about the up and downs. The weather varies so much. Prices of crops and livestock vary so much. So, yeah, there are some really good times in ag and some really bad times in ag."

"But is he making a mistake?," she asked again, obviously determined to get an answer.

"Well, a lot depends on his personality," I said. "To be in ag, and stay in ag, it's important to be even-tempered and clear-headed — not to get too high in the good times or too low in the bad times."

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The woman wasn't entirely satisfied, but seemed to realize it was the best answer I could give her.

Her question is especially applicable this spring, I think. In much of the Upper Midwest, agriculturalists suffered through a horrendous 2019 harvest and a difficult 2019-2020 winter — and now face a wet, uncertain planting season.

If you're familiar with area ag, you know the challenges it faces: poor crop prices, tiny or non-existent profit margins and trade policies that even supporters say bring short-term pain (and that critics say are flat-out stupid). The strong possibility of late planting — which often means poorer yields — adds to the frustration.

The coronavirus pandemic, which is hammering all Americans, is yet another concern for agriculture.

I know farmers, most of them relatively young, who say the past eight to 10 months have been the most difficult stretch they've faced in agriculture. These are talented people who would have been successful in careers outside agriculture, and at some level they're second-guessing their decision to enter ag. They knew intellectually that farming often brings tough times, but until now hadn't fully realized just how difficult ag can be.

Which brings me to the grandmother's question: Is getting into ag a mistake?

A specific answer, of course, depends on the individual involved — his or her skills, interests and personality, as well as the specific situation he or she would step into.

In general, though, no, I don't think getting into ag is a mistake. To the contrary, in fact.

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The world's population continues to grow, as does the number of middle-class people with the desire and ability to buy high-quality food that American farmers and ranchers produce. Sure, the pandemic is causing all kinds of trouble. But we'll get through it eventually, and ag will bounce back.

What's more, science and technology continue to improve, and new research becomes available. The combination creates opportunities for farmers and ranchers — and for people in ag businesses that serve and support producers.

So, yes, there's good reason to be optimistic about ag's future.

That doesn't diminish the pain of current tough times. There are people in ag I know, like and respect who have lost jobs or otherwise been hurt by what's happening. And nobody knows how much more pain might be ahead.

My advice, for what it's worth, is something that veteran agriculturalists already know: Avoid getting too high in the good times and too low in the bad times. Far easier said than done, of course. But it's valid nonetheless.

Jonathan Knutson welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206-6008. Email him at jknutson@agweek.com , or call him at 701-780-1111. Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek.

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