November 4, 2008 02:27 AM

Licensed to Till

By John Phipps

One of the most curious differences between my farm and that of my Danish friends is the fact they are licensed farmers. Danish farmers must pass a test, have a degree in agriculture (although there are workarounds for this) and serve "apprenticeships” as training before being licensed to farm. Further, farmers over 65 are not licensed, nor are children.

In Denmark, farmers also must be licensed to buy and operate farm machinery. But the real kicker is only licensed farmers can own farmland. Roll that thought around in your head for a while. To be sure, crafty Danes have found ways to skirt this, but the vast majority of farmland in Denmark is farmer-owned as a result.

This is a radical leap for Americans, but I can see both sides. On the upside to licensing, there are fewer incompetent farmers in the Danish farmers' midst, and those who farm have some proof of expertise. We all look at our doctor's diplomas, for example.

Nonstarter. In the U.S., the whole idea, I'll admit, seems like a nonstarter, actually. For the most part, we look in horror at professional accreditation for our occupation. In fact, when I mentioned this idea on "U.S. Farm Report,” the response was remarkably hostile.

The first objection seems to be philosophical/political. Professional licensing strikes many producers as trampling our individual rights. But I have checked the Constitution, and the right to farm is not actually spelled out there.

And of course, you can't hurl the "S word” (socialism) around enough these days. However, the specter of overregulation is not exactly a timely complaint, as lax government oversight is blamed for our credit nightmare and the solution cannot be disguised as close to capitalism.

Too free? Farmers have been exempt from too much for too long. One glaring example is our appalling safety record, which annually includes children killed at work. Imagine any other industry having public approval to put minors in dangerous situations. Licensing curbs this abhorrent practice.

We long ago passed the era of being a labor-intensive industry. Modern industrial agriculture is about capital, technology and management. As Dan Anderson ( recently pointed out, letting just anyone operate farm machinery is asking for trouble.

Licensing also identifies who is truly a farmer for my European friends. The Farm Service Agency would love to have that murky issue clarified. Plus it might just save your subsidy if fewer dollars went to Ted Turner. At the same time, it could preempt environmental regulatory action.

Some may feel being licensed smacks of elitism. However, I notice friends always manage to drop the phrase "one of the best in the country” when talking about their doctor or hospital. What is wrong with wanting the best in the country to take care of the country?

Mostly there is resistance (that increases with age) to the idea of objective measurement of professional skill. The idea of passing the bar or Certified Public Accountant exam is well and good for eggheads, but we're talking about farming, right?

Maybe not much longer. The skill set that enabled me to start farming is now just the minimum. While many may not like the idea of evolving into a true profession, we need to remember that surgeons were once little more than barbers with too much time on their hands.

Credibility. Current producers could be grandfathered into the system. The benefit would clearly accrue to early careers. State-of-the-art training is the most powerful market value young people can bring to the game, but without licensing it goes unrecognized.

Licensing American farmers would formalize a process already in progress. We no longer are a profession open to anyone, just as casual entrepreneurs can't open a dentist's office or even roof a house.

By refusing professional standards, we forgo a chance to raise our collective performance at a time when such a move would be most reassuring to our customers. Worse yet, we impede the entrance and rise of better minds and greater ability. But then, maybe that's the idea.

John Phipps,, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report.” For local station listings, log on to

Top Producer, November 2008

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