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Farmers eye the future


By STEWART TRUELSEN



For the Capital Press



'The farmer, if not absolutely rich, is at least independent," according to one assessment of the state of American agriculture.



Here's another: "Soon, stockbrokers will be driving taxis -- or the smart ones will be driving tractors in order to work for farmers -- while farmers will be driving Lamborghinis."



The biggest difference between the two appraisals of farming is that they were made 150 years apart.



There were no Lamborghinis or any other automobiles when Isaac Newton -- not Sir Isaac Newton -- offered his opinion. Newton was the first commissioner of agriculture, holding the post that later became secretary of agriculture.



The recent bullish opinion of farming is from "Street Smarts," a book by Jim Rogers, who is well-known in investment and commodity circles. Rogers also noted that Lamborghini started as a tractor company in 1948.



In the brash style typical of Wall Street prognosticators, Rogers tells young people that business degrees are a waste of time and money.



"The smart move for all those MBA graduates would have been to earn agriculture and mining degrees," he said, and added derisively that more people study public relations than agriculture.



Newton also addressed some of his remarks to young people in 1863. He tried to convince young men not to be enticed by the more rapid economic gains made by the merchant, trader or professional man. He told farmers to put aside the "drudgery and tameness" that many of them associated with being a farmer and look on the bright side.



In the 150 years between Newton and Rogers, the drudgery of farming was largely eliminated by mechanization and technology. Some farmers got rich, but more scraped by or went broke. Farming was tame in 1863 only by comparison to more adventuresome occupations like gold mining or whaling. Risky is a better choice of words to describe farming both then and now.



No one would want to go back to farming the way it was done in Newton's time, but there is something to be envied about that era. According to him, farmers held five-sixths of the nation's wealth and all of its political power. Incidentally, it took another 50 years to harness that political power with the organizing of county and state Farm Bureaus and later the American Farm Bureau Federation.



Today, farmers and ranchers are certainly less confident about their future than Rogers. The Ag Confidence Index, which surveys farmers and agribusiness about near-term and future sentiments, is optimistic near term but turns negative for future expectations. It is little wonder because farm income is expected to drop significantly in 2014.



Recent good times in agriculture have left the public rather complacent about the nation's most important industry, but farmers and ranchers know better. There have been too many boom-and-bust cycles since Newton's official report on their livelihood.



Stewart Truelsen is the author of "Forward Farm Bureau," a book marking the 90th anniversary of the American Farm Bureau Federation.



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