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Q&A: What makes a farmer successful?
Back in 1975, Hiram Drache turned heads when he predicted just 100,000 farms were needed to produce the country’s food. That wasn’t a popular message when farms were smaller and tallied just over 2.3 million.
“I had no preconceived notion this would happen,” says the prolific author and retired Concordia College history professor at Moorhead, Minnesota.
What made him a believer, though, were 253 farmer interviews he conducted for his 1976 book, Beyond the Furrow: Some Keys to Successful Farming in the Twentieth Century.
“I looked at how they were getting larger, and put the data together that said this would happen,” he says.
Drache stuck by his guns, even during the turbulent 1980s when he was a sought-after speaker on the Midwest farm meeting circuit.
Over time, too, Drache has been prophetic. Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M Extension economist, has noted that the 2007 Census of Agriculture pegged 59,000 farms that generate $1 million in gross sales accounted for 59% of the total U.S. output. If precedent applies, this number will rise when 2012 Census of Agriculture data is released.
At 89 years young, Drache keeps busy. One of his most recent books profiles Ron Offutt, a former student of Drache’s who is one of the world’s largest potato farmers.
Another book, Where’s Meriden?, tells the story of Drache’s hometown of Meriden, Minnesota. Here’s some of what Drache has observed over the years.
SF: You’ve written much about successful farmers. What are some keys to their success?
HD: The bulk of them are of faith. They are always optimistic about agriculture. They have the ability to anticipate things and are risk-oriented. I have worked with enough entrepreneurs to know that they have an instinct, that they can anticipate if a business will work. They just have an instinct to know when to move.
SF: Is it all smooth sailing?
HD: In every one of these cases, they have had tough times. Kreider Farms, the largest egg producer in Pennsylvania, has endured salmonella scares and other challenges. It was very difficult for them, but they are still there.
SF: What if they go too far in their expansion plans? HD: A lot of times, the spouse will come in and put on the brakes. They don’t always listen, though.
Ronnie’s wife, Karen, told him he wouldn’t like going public. [Offutt took his farm equipment business, RDO Equipment, public in 1997.] She said he wouldn’t be able to control his own company. It hurt Ronnie when the stock market fell. [Offutt eventually bought back outstanding shares.]
SF: What makes farm consolidation inevitable?
HD: Technology. They don’t make any more land, so the only way to grow more food is to be more productive on the land we have.
One time I spoke in Appleton, Minnesota. I showed a slideshow going from a walking plow to a gang plow to a tractor and then up to a four-wheel-drive tractor. I pointed out that they had the best machine to preserve the family farm. It enabled them to farm big enough to make a living.
SF: What’s a major threat to family farms?
HD: The family farm is the greatest place to have family fights. Everyone fights and wants to save the family farm, but this causes more arguments within families about how to save the family farm.