Perspective: The Peculiar Rules of Our Game

January 9, 2012 10:50 AM

One summer, we hosted a student worker from France on our farm. It was a wonderful experience. As part of our efforts to show him all about America, we took him to a Cubs game.

As I explained what was happening on the field, Pierre (yep, a stereotypical French name) became confused. Soon, even I realized the rules of the game are not obvious and some are
downright quirky. Since then, I have been more aware of bizarre sports rules. The dropped third strike, the onside kick, icing the puck—all these are (semi)clear to fans but incomprehensible to outsiders.
The rules of our professional economic competition are sprinkled with unique restrictions as well. They make our business harder for outsiders to comprehend and frequently are forgotten when translating economic theory into action.
1. The Non-Fungibility Factor. I once had a noted economist tell me I should sell my farm because, according to a neat graph he drew on the back of his handout, I could buy it back in a few years for 50% less. Laying aside the fact that this was six years ago and his prediction for land prices was totally wrong, the first thing to remember about farmland is that each piece is unique.
Unlike shares of stock or government bonds, tracts of land are not interchangeable. While land is always for sale, not every piece is on the market every day. The prospect of “flipping” a family farm held for generations almost makes me nauseous to contemplate. Even with 20/20 foresight, churning farmland would be out of bounds for virtually all producers.
2. The Waterskiing Rule. I have friends who have taken sabbaticals, either between jobs or with an employer’s concurrence. While I enjoy their stories of how liberating it was, the idea of
taking time off, or even downsizing “temporarily” to spend time elsewhere, is a nonstarter in our business. Farming is a cumulative business and almost always requires unrelenting drive. You cannot drop the rope for a rest without plummeting below the surface.
3. The Disclosure Expectation. This is a dangerous topic for a farm magazine, but our profession seems to have little problem sharing business secrets with peers. Indeed, refusal to explain a success or innovation is often seen as selfish. This rule is less observed now than it was a few years ago, but it is still surprising to outsiders. Few other industries share individual information and hard-won lessons as freely as ours. While it certainly speeds progress throughout our ranks, it flies in the face of our competition rules.
4. The Zero-Sum Constraint. This is the economic limitation that probably causes more emotional turmoil than any other facet of our business. With a limited number of acres to farm, for me to win (expand) requires someone else to lose. Even in the case of normal turnover from retirement, for example, there will be one winner and many losers, and the sum of acres at the end of the day will be the same.
Looking for a win-win scenario is more socially amenable, but I haven’t seen anything approach such an ideal in row crop farming. While it is possible with livestock to grow the market by adding numbers, even higher demand for crops can’t create more acres.
This inescapable rule conflicts with many of our cultural and religious principles, such as fair play and the admonition against greed. It is also the most intrusive of our odd rules of engagement. While all sorts of plans have been tried to mitigate the personal consequences of our competition, none have proven effective.
Failure to remember the peculiar rules of our sector can lead to borrowing unworkable business ideas or establishing unrealistic goals. There is often a longing to somehow dodge our “third-strike” rules, since they force an unending effort to reconcile them with our moral belief system. If there is an upside, it might be that these restrictions thus prevent us from living the “unexamined life” that Socrates warned about. 
John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Contact him at For local station listings, log on to


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