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Message to young farmers: Get out of that rut

Agriculture.com Staff 07/19/2006 @ 9:54am

Lowell Catlett, an ag economist who is the Dean of New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, is a speaker who really does gesture wildly.

One moment he's throwing his hands into the air. The next, he's slapping his forehead, partially covering the bald spot in his gray hair.

That and the disarming wit of his native Texas Panhandle helped captivate 40 of the nation's best and brightest young farmers and ranchers Tuesday. Catlett tried to prepare them for a future in the food business, It's a future that will be even more digitized than today and segmented down to markets as small as Catlett and seven other fans of a Pinot Noir wine from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

"I'm going to lie to you. To talk about the future, you have to lie because nobody knows what's going to happen," Catlett said up front to the participants at the 2006 New Century Farmer Conference near Des Moines, Iowa. The educational session is sponsored by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., and Rabobank as a special project of the National FFA Foundation.

Catlett urged young farmers to be different from the cattle on the Texas ranch where he grew up. The cows followed well-worn paths that became ruts. "There's nothing wrong with a rut. It's easy. You don't have to think," he said. And it leads to feed and water.

But if the next generation of ag producers is to be successful, they'll need to be observant of the world around them, to think creatively, and pursue business plans that take them out of a mental rut.

To encourage creativity, vary your daily routines, he said. Don't drive to a job the same way every day. Read magazines, but not the ones your normally read.

"Instead of Field and Stream, get Women's Day," he said. "Instead of Guns and Ammo, get Mother Earth News." It's women's magazines that have written about the growth of the organic foods business. And whether or not you're interested in organics, it's just one example of a food business that is segmenting into more and more niche markets, Catlett said.

In 1969, Americans spent 31% of their income on food. Today, it's only 9.5%, and just 4% for some households with above-average income.

Catlett paused.

"Food's free," he said. "Is this the business you want to be in, in production agriculture? You don't want to be if all you're selling is calories. They're free."

Catlett described other business models that have turned low-value commodities to gold. Water used to be virtually free. Now bottled water sales are eclipsing soft drinks. Coffee has become $4 latte at Starbucks, which is becoming America's version of the French bistro or British pub -- a place to spend time as well as money.

Another example of upscale food marketing is Whole Foods, the grocery store chain based in Texas. It sells 238 brands of balsamic vinegar, Catlett said. "They're not selling calories. They're selling choice."

Some of Catlett's message resonated with the young farmers.

Dustin Bliss, whose father raises 850 dairy replacement heifers on a farm in Wyoming County, New York, found Catlett's message in line with his own dream of starting a dairy and perhaps a milk and food delivery business to nearby Buffalo. "It's not a huge city but there's a market," Bliss said.

Another young farmer, Rebecca Schnetzer of Asbury, New Jersey, hopes to one day sell unpasteurized milk to the New York or Philadelphia markets, although some regulations may have to be changed before that's a manageable option.

"I've always had a passion for dairying and for milk," says Schnetzer, whose family runs a dairy farm.

Jennifer Freeborn of Pickreall, Oregon, whose family raises livestock and grass seed, found herself disagreeing with some of Catlett's views as an economist. Catlett mentioned that the ethanol industry was bringing more money into agriculture. "I don't think that I agree with that," Freeborn said. "Ethanol is going to hurt the livestock industry a lot." She thinks it will make feed more expensive.

But when it came to inspiring young farmers to look at the world differently, she rated Catlett as one of the best speakers she's heard.

The organizers of The New Century Farmer conference are hoping that Catlett and other speakers will inspire the participants to come up with their own, unique vision plan to take back to their farms, ranches and communities.

The organizers of The New Century Farmer conference are hoping that Catlett and other speakers will inspire the participants to come up with their own, unique vision plan to take back to their farms, ranches and communities.

Lowell Catlett, an ag economist who is the Dean of New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, is a speaker who really does gesture wildly.

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