While the historic tide of prosperity in agriculture has lifted many boats, some boaters were buying outboards as most just drifted with the current. In short order, the hustlers, risk-takers, and brazen gamblers swept up much bounty from this remarkable era.
Welcome to the Age of Audacity. Ordinarily, we count on the law of averages to dispense comeuppance, but this is the first paradox of aggressive action: it has different consequences in a zero-sum game. When audacious competitors win the bids for land, either rental or owned, they displace other producers from the fixed land total. Even if what goes around does come around, you might not be around.
When audacious schemes go south, the situation does not reset to previous conditions. I have never seen "lost" land recovered. While it could happen, few tenures end gracefully enough to make rolling back the clock easy for either party.
Volatile economics increase the potential of a payout, as well as losses. Just like lottery jackpots, high stakes entice more players.
There are other subtle forces at play. We forget random chance frequently produces astonishing "streaks" of lucky wins, regardless of merit. In an annualized business like ours, a string of good fortune will propel a few far ahead, perhaps to a point where they can withstand the inevitable blunder.
We hate the idea of chance determining winners and losers, but brief examination of any successful farm career will expose the luck of birth, marriage, weather or merely being in the right place at the right time.
"Even if what goes around does come around, you might not be around."
Contributing to the utilization of chance is the virtual end of other ladders to success. Like the 40-year mail clerk-to-vice-president corporate career, the bootstrap climb from a few FFA sows to full-time farming is a rare exception, rather than a slow but sure option. The entry barriers are too high, competition too fierce and capital too immense.
Lacking alternatives, the big gamble is not unreasonable. Without viable growth paths, trying to leap over the chasm is often the option. However, the fortunate few who land on the other side knock others off.
Meanwhile, cautious competitors cannot count catastrophe to counter audacity—we’ve insured against it. While we were enjoying the comfort of a generous safety net, the audacious were using it like a trampoline to reach the high fruit.
The second paradox is that audacity is non-symmetrical. Those who have chosen more prudent strategies will not emerge as conquerors when conditions reverse. Suppose prices/profits plummet, and the brazen bold become badly burned. Careful farmers seldom swoop in to capitalize; they become even more cautious.
Hard times don’t reward the prudent proportionately. When some of the truly audacious were decimated in the 80s, the mildly audacious owned the field, literally and figuratively. Taking some risks when the outlook was dim was a wise business move, and those who mustered modest audacity continued to replace the wary.
Nothing Left to Lose. The conservative approach works well only if you have something to conserve. Audacity fits a weaker hand. As Janis Joplin sagely observed, "Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose." "Wannabees" thus operate with a range of freedom that many envy.
Finally, psychologists have shown our affective forecasting overestimates how happy success will make us. We also overestimate the unhappiness of failure. Experiencing failure corrects this bias and makes risk-taking less terrifying. In this way, our industry could be selecting for audacity as a common farmer attribute. If you think competition is insane now, just wait.
So how to handle these paradoxes? One strategy is The Fortress. We pay "too much" for farmland to own a farm large enough to support a family. Audacious threats also prompt us to expand beyond what strikes many as "enough." Not depending on one acreage improves the odds of surviving a setback.
The important thing to recognize is the audacious don’t just take big risks—they broadcast or spread them like a weed seed. Ours is not a spectator sport.
John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For local station listings, log on to www.USFarmReport.com.
- March 2013