It is not a stretch to say American agriculture is a success. Even with farm income on the decline by almost any measure of productivity, profitability, and sustainability, our food and fiber system is successful and is being emulated by other nations around the world. This does not mean that every farm is a success, but the modern food production system, that so many like to ridicule, is a success. However, there is an aspect of success that could prove to be our downfall.
Joe Calloway, a business consultant and author, defines success as doing very well what worked in the past. He warns that success can lead to complacency. He says the business world is full of companies that have been successful and then have become complacent. Circuit City is a good example. This big box electronics chain was praised for doing things right, and so its management said don’t change a thing. Within a few years, they were bankrupt and out of business.
Complacency is something in which agriculture cannot afford to indulge. Agriculture has always been an industry that is changing, and innovation and technological advances are part of our heritage. Yet, the changes that are coming fast may be more revolutionary than evolutionary. Callaway calls them disruptive. The confluence of biotechnology, big data, artificial intelligence, and globalization will totally change the way we grow, distribute, and sell food in the not too distant future.
Spotting these trends and figuring out how to adapt to them will be the challenge of the next generation of farmers. Meeting that challenge will take a new set of skills as well as a willingness to embrace a new direction. In some cases, it may be a literal change in direction from farming horizontally to farming vertically as hydroponic farms raise food in large wheelhouses located in urban areas.
After generations of fathers teaching their sons how to farm, future farm employees may be specially trained operators of complex farm equipment or chemicals who we hire via an app just to perform a specific task. There are several companies already performing this service today. Small farmers will be able to sell products directly to consumers with services like Amazon and have the products delivered by drones or self-driving trucks.
Groups that get this are the young people in FFA and students majoring in agriculture at our land grant universities. I spent some time this week with some of those folks; and, not only is their passion for agriculture great, their vision of a different kind of agriculture is pervasive. I did not see much complacency in this group.
One thing about the future will not be different: people will still need to eat and want to wear clothes. So there will continue to be a market for farmers, but being successful in the future is going to be a lot different than succeeding in the past.
By Gary Truitt