By: Dr. Kohl
It is not often one gets to return to their alma mater to be part of a distinguished panel to address the future of agriculture and rural America. Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, overlooking Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, was the backdrop for this production. I spent three years and six months here earning my Masters and Doctorate degrees. I shared the panel with Dr. Kathryn Boor, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Mr. Chuck Connor, President and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. The panel was moderated by one of my former classmates, Mr. Bill Lipinski, CEO of Farm Credit East. Let us explore some of the thoughts and perspectives shared that day.
The Agricultural Marketplace
First, the food, fiber, and fuel marketplace will undergo more change in the next 10 years than it has in the past 50. Local, natural and organic agriculture will be a growing segment of the market, particularly in the population belts of the Eastern part of the United States extending into Canada, where nearly 40 percent of the affluent population is located.
Globally, the emerging marketplace will present tremendous opportunities for producers in the food, fiber, and fuel businesses. The key will be to deliver products to a global populace, in which 27 percent live on less than a dollar per day and another 20 percent live on less than two dollars per day. It was the consensus of the panel that the U.S. agricultural industry needs to more fully understand global emerging trends and the needs of diverse cultures in regions with growing populations.
The panel was in agreement that more time will be needed with government agencies and the public sector going forward. With 85 percent of Americans two generations away from the farm, connecting with consumers concerning market trends, and social and natural resource issues needs to be a high priority for any individual or group linked to agriculture. Understanding the emotional “hot buttons” of the public and developing proactive, fact-based, educational response programs are going to be critical to garner support. More time will be spent across the spectrum with local, state, national, and international government agencies and centers given these challenges. One must be engaged with consumers and be an advocate for the agricultural industry.
The panel was asked how risk in the agricultural industry has changed. Volatility at the extremes in market dynamics, that being cost, revenue, and bottom line net profit, was the most frequent response. Volatility will create more opportunity for success, but it also comes with more opportunity to fail.
Success in Agriculture
This leads to the final issue of how one can succeed in agriculture in the next 10 years. Regardless of the agricultural endeavor, being associated with the right people and having effective “people skills” will be essential. Networking with others and establishing customer advisory groups in the business will be critical to connect with the marketplace and people outside of agriculture. Internally, advisory groups can bring expertise and a critical eye to business strategies that ensure the operation stays on course, ensuring a profitable, sustainable business and a rewarding lifestyle.
Preserving flexibility in business strategies and maintaining proper levels of financial debt and working capital will assist in navigating through the downturns of economic cycles. This will also allow the business to “hit the ground running” when opportunities arise on the other side of a downturn. These strategies apply regardless of business size, enterprise, or location.
All the panelists were bullish on the next decade for the agriculture industry and the opportunities it will present, not only for business, but for a lifestyle that can be a foundation for strong family values and education of our youth.