Perspective: The Party That Never Happened

08:25AM Oct 02, 2013
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There is scant evidence of either mindless revelry or foolish extravagance.

John Phipps

It’s hard to turn a page in ag media without encountering a description of recent years as a party, which is now sternly declared "over." The metaphor is inaccurate at best, and insulting to farmers at worst. There is scant evidence of either mindless revelry or foolish extravagance.

This image of farmers squandering prosperity originates with critics who remember 1973. In 1975, after a decade away, I discovered fellow Boomers exhilarated by that still unrivaled income spike. We put our name on lists to buy a new tractor; men who seldom drove 150 miles to Chicago flew to Las Vegas often; we could not buy big enough pickups. Goaded by government policies, equally giddy lenders and elders we delighted in defying, many farmers went overboard.

Agriculture had just emerged from a grim economic period and was still an occupation of exhaustive effort and financial naiveté. Children didn’t just leave the farm—they fled. The socio-economic gulf between farm and city was wide. Young men urged off to college (like fathers drawn off to war) saw other lives and decided they knew what "better" looked like. Returning home, they knew how to celebrate and only needed the resources. The results were unsurprising.

During the ‘80s, the survivors grew up. When this current run of good fortune occurred, the response was markedly different, which USDA’s financial reports reflect.
We have reinvested in our long-term future. When critics point to "outlandish" land prices, remember—regardless of price, land is an investment, not a consumable. We have installed tile, terraces and pivots at an unprecedented pace. We have built homes and bins and buildings that will serve our grandchildren and beyond. We have paid down debt to historic ratios. The balance has been herded into long-term notes with rock-bottom fixed rates. These are not the actions of people at a particularly fun party.

Even this supposed failing is not without rationale: "Yeah, but we can go X years without buying another machine." Farm machinery is correctly classified as a "durable," and dealers fear demand has just been pulled forward.

Our sheds are better seen as a well-stocked tool chest. We have also learned that even if we admit to being "over-machined," the narrower fieldwork windows of our climate change era often prove we barely have enough.

Lifestyle Calibration. Above all, after decades of laments, we took the earliest profits and, in the words of my father, "outbid the world" for our sons and daughters. We "bought" our best and brightest home. Our living expenses have increased; however, a 20% increase while net farm income was more than tripling doesn’t strike me as disproportionate. Even the upswing in leisurely activities from golf to getaways is better seen as an overdue revision of an all-work-all-the-time ethic that only served to drive our children away from the land, stress our marriages and narrow our vision.

Rural lifestyle rebalance and firsthand global experiences were valuable investments. Perhaps the transition from lower-middle class to upper-middle class was easier than the abrupt change from lower to middle class in the ‘70s. Or maybe 21st century farmers already learned what money could not buy.

Meanwhile, we have been harangued about our tendency for financial excesses. Perversely, the only example of embarrassing indulgence involves one perennial haranguer: the Farm Credit System (more to come on that). I have been a tiresome critic of our profession for our subsidy hypocrisy and boasting, but this issue is a bum rap.

While we rejoiced to advance long-desired goals, farmers managed this bonanza with remarkable self-discipline and forward thinking. Regardless of what happens to farm income, the party isn’t over. It never happened in the first place.

John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at [email protected]. For local station listings, log on to