You can find plenty of statistics about acreage, crop mixes and income on U.S. farms with the mere click of a mouse.
The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) website Farms and Farmland, for instance, offers an overview from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest available. It shows how farm size has changed over the past few years, how crop selection has altered with changing markets and how the demographics of farm operators have changed. Farmers are getting older.
And the Southwest Farm Press article Farming’s declining numbers highlight agriculture concerns from several years back offers another look into what makes up a farm and how much the rest of us depend on what they do.
But those are just numbers, dry statistics that offer a significant amount of information about our most important industry. What I know about U.S. farmers, however, deals more with emotion than arithmetic. I routinely witness the heart and soul of the U.S. farm.
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I’ll not profess to understand all the anguish a farmer feels following a late-season hail storm or the loss of a calf. I can’t fathom the ongoing frustration and despair of watching crops wilt a bit more every day under oppressive heat and relentless drought. I am unable to appreciate the courage necessary to plant a crop in April when the price offers meager chance of turning even a minimum profit.
Nor can I fully grasp the unadulterated joy of riding a combine through 200-bushel corn or a cotton stripper through a field so white it looks like a heavy snowfall. And the delight that comes when meshing those bin-bustin’ crops with a rising market defies my comprehension.
I’ve witnessed farmers pull rabbits out of their gimme caps, making bumper crops against all the odds that weather, bugs and fungi could throw in their way. And I’ve seen them throw up their hands in frustration as a near-perfect growing season culminates with an autumn hail storm, an early freeze or a downpour that ruins a year’s efforts.
Yet they endure. They never let the bumper crops cloud their judgment; they never let the disasters deter their dreams. They understand the risk and they accept the challenge.
Many farmers I’ve met and interviewed over the past 35 years have been well-educated, with degrees in animal science, agricultural economics, agronomy and other disciplines. Some have had non-ag degrees—engineering, biology and chemistry, to name a few. They encourage their sons and daughters to get degrees as well. We’ve recorded their stories, too, such as this one about a young man with a Master’s degree coming back to the farm (Young farmer makes one-ton cotton). These siblings also put their degrees to use on the family farm (Brother and sister eager to return to family farm).
So farm families do have options. They could do other things. In fact, the statistics, the dry arithmetic, may show that another career would be an easier choice. They could count on a steady paycheck, reasonable hours, benefits, paid vacations. The risks would be less. Instead of risking hundreds of thousands of dollars to a freak rainstorm or a late freeze, they might be concerned that a traffic tie up makes them ten minutes late to work.
They could live in town, close to the grocery store, with theaters and shopping malls nearby. They could eat lunch at quaint bistros instead of on the tailgate of a pickup truck.
They could. They’d rather not, thank you very much. Farming, after all, is about emotion as well as statistics. Farmers have to crunch numbers, have to weigh the advantages of one crop against another, have to determine the best sales strategy for each crop and innumerable market upheavals.
But they don’t farm because of the numbers. They farm because it’s what they want to do, are compelled, in a sense, to do. It’s not just what they do; it’s who they are.
Farmers and ranchers, by the nature of their work, which usually occurs in isolated locales, out of the public eye, are largely unappreciated for their contribution to society. They receive little acclaim for producing the most abundant, the most safe and the most affordable supply of food and fiber in the world. And accolades are not what they want. They just desire to keep on doing what they love to do and what the rest of us rely on them doing.
Wednesday, March 18, is National Agriculture Day. It’s one day when we all should express heartfelt appreciation to farmers and ranchers for continuing to perform the most important job in the country. It’s easy for me. I know them and tone and all I say THANK YOU.