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What's the young farmer's best asset? 'Between your ears'

Agriculture.com Staff 07/14/2009 @ 11:53am

FFA members from 23 states arrived at the New Century Farmer Conference on Monday with a bumper crop of questions about how to acquire enough land and machinery to start farming. They probably weren't expecting to hear keynote speaker Mike Duffy's advice about where to find their most valuable asset.

"Your strongest resource is between your ears," the Iowa State University ag economist told the 50 college-age FFA members meeting at the Pioneer Hi-Bred campus in Johnston, Iowa, through Thursday. "You don't have to own all of the land you farm," he says. Somebody always is making money in farming. But it requires planning and thinking. What you need to do is figure out how you can maximize your resources."

Duffy advises them to incorporate these six steps into their learning curve:

  1. Determine what you want, and why you want to farm. What is your vision of agriculture?
  2. Inventory your available resources. Ownership and control of assets isn't the same thing.
  3. Always keep an open mind, and be willing to make changes. "Maintain diversity," he says.
  4. Manage crops for the greatest profit, not the highest yield. Aim for low production costs. Don't forget marketing.
  5. Consider value-added products. "Farmers need to get as close to the final consumer as possible," he says.
  6. Never quit asking questions.

"There always are opportunities for beginning farmers," Duffy says. "You’ll have more opportunities if you don't depend entirely on capital. Make use of your management skills."

Generating income in farming is a challenge, Duffy admits. There are different ways to achieve it, including:

  1. Today's tight margins require a lot of volume; determine how much growth is needed.
  2. Widen these narrow margins through management and marketing.
  3. Alter production to include noncommodity commodities and alternative crops.
  4. Supplement income with off-farm employment (could be based on the farm, too).
  5. Open your mind to slow food/local food movement options/alternatives.

The emergence of a dual agricultural system is today's reality, Duffy says. "In the future there will be 'oil tanker' farms and 'speed boat farms.'" he says. "Both have their own advantages and disadvantages."

Duffy believes that farming will change tremendously in the lifetime of this generation of farmers. "Much of the change will revolve around energy and greenhouse gases," he says. He makes these three points:

  1. Our current technology is energy dependent. Gas and diesel are only one component.
  2. Energy costs will be extremely volatile in the future.
  3. The debate on what to do about greenhouse gases and global warming will accelerate.

"Farmers need to contribute to the debate," he says. "Growing biomass and switch grass and other crops will open up new opportunities."

In addition to energy, Duffy says there are three other crucial issues: water, environment and food safety.

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