As a group, we Baby Boomers make up an enormous cohort of active farmers. Many of us endured, with varying degrees of patience, the repetitive advice of parents and older neighbors from their life experiences during the Great Depression.
Our chance to repay this unasked-for advice is now at hand. Like it or not, well-meaning or self-serving, we are going to mimic that tiresome exercise with Deep Thoughts from the Time of Barry Manilow. We are talking about double-knit guidance here, complete with false equivalence and illogical analogies.
New Territory. The underlying presumption is simple: bad times are all alike. Unless some extreme event occurs between the time of my writing and publishing, I am convinced there are almost no sectors—grain, protein, produce or whatever—that can look with great enthusiasm on 2017. Coupled with the two already-difficult years we have just endured, our profits are under siege by costs and income alike. Although comparisons to the '80s are inevitable, I have strong reservations about their usefulness.
To begin with, macroeconomic conditions are radically different. Inflation and interest rates have one fewer digit today. The U.S. economy is improving steadily and has for an almost-record period. We are close to full employment. We have not erased all of the damages from the Great Recession, but there are few national statistics flashing warning signs.
Far more important, though, is the explosion in economic growth outside the U.S. Savings rates of 40% or more in China and South Asia has the world awash in liquid wealth. The addition of billions of new economic players risen from poverty since the '80s both stabilizes global economics and dilutes the power of the U.S. to dictate financial terms to the rest of the world. For agriculture, the '80s were pre-Brazil, further confounding comparison to today.
Meanwhile, our farm sector has new basics. The ethanol-driven demand that energized grain prices will not skyrocket a second time. And unlike the '80s, when we widely pursued freer trade as beneficial, we are clearly edging toward protectionism.
Science was still respected in the '80s, and agriculture enthusiastically experimented with new findings in our field. Facts today are a matter of personal conviction. The ability of experts, from economists to agronomists, to influence farmers is diminished.
Many of us found support during the '80s by traditional risk-sharing agreements with landowners. The growing transparency of rental markets, intense competition and increased risk aversion in landowners, even within families, offer far less refuge.
Rinse And Repeat. There are more stark differences, but I have found important similarities in my records.
We were equally clueless about what lay ahead, yet all but a small number of farmers endured. Predictions will not save us this time, either. Inability to see tomorrow says little about our chance of survival.
Farm wives and off-farm income carried many farms through the '80s. In the next few years, such revenue will still be important but far more so will be access to health insurance. Even operations with ample farm income will depend on outside employment to assure coverage and help with escalating costs.
Strong friendships revived my spirits when hope seemed faintest. Those who see the other side of this time of testing will do so because they have invested in others as well as themselves. Our personal networks will once again prove to be the true safety nets, not by magical mind-melding but as an antidote for despair and self-doubt. I was comforted more than once by honest admissions of frustration, anxiety and outright fear in the quiet voices of close colleagues. We all need to know our problems are not imagined or unique.
To have friends, be a friend—with all the effort and baggage such a commitment requires. It might be a little late to start, but it could still make the difference. It did for me in 1987.