John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 4-15-13 |

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John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 4-15-13

Whenever I find myself in a group of people I haven’t yet met, such as an uncle’s gallery opening, or a wedding reception for an old high school friend, a typical conversation starter — after the weather — is: “So, what do you do?”

When I say that I farm, new acquaintances have two predictable responses. One, they want to know how many acres I farm and what I grow, or they make an unsolicited flattering comment about how hard farmers work, and how they have admired, but resisted, the farming profession for that reason.

Though I seldom resist compliments, I’ve been realizing lately that I’m not sure farmers work any harder than people in a lot of other professions.

When I started farming in the late 1960s, I went to the field on an International M, holding on for dear life to a hard rubber steering wheel while sitting on a metal seat that hung out over the drawbar with exhaust blowing in my face. But the last tractor I operated, a John Deere 9400, not only did 10 times the work of an M, it sported front wheel assist, a pressurized, air-conditioned cab, 6-way action seat, surround sound, GPS, radar and an instrument panel that told me more about what that tractor was doing than I needed to know to rip through 30-inches of hardpan. Compared to the M, operating the John Deere is like watching a movie of farming rather than being in the scene, and certainly made the work easier.

When we farmers receive flattery for our hard work, or tell others how about it, we should remember the significant support industries we depend on. Though American farmers are said to feed something like 200 people, if the farmer didn’t have the fuel supplier, the chemical and fertilizer dealer, the seed producer, the machinery manufacturer, the parts house, the federal crop insurance with price supports, and accounting assistance, the farmer would be hard pressed to feed himself. We really are in this together.

As far as the calendar of work, farming is somewhat the reverse of teaching, which I know can be a difficult profession. The farmer works hard in the summer when the teacher is off, and vis versa. Basically, when I hear friends talk about their jobs in a wide variety of other professions, I have to say that I think farming has become one of the professions that is actually not such hard work.

I don’t admit, or mention, this to diminish the hard work that we farmers actually do, but rather to bring some perspective to the old pastoral stereotype of the farmer working daylight to dark, cutting wheat with a scythe. Anyone holding that image should spend a day in a modern combine, which does the work of hundreds of humans in the field, but has hundreds of humans behind the scene, all the way back to those who mined the ore that went into the metals that made the combine, through to the people who put it together, the supplier who brought the fuel, and the banker who financed it.

There is also the notion that farming is risky. Which is it, but I don’t think it is much riskier than a lot of other professions, and farming actually has significant safety nets protecting against the volatility of both weather and markets — protections not available to many other professions.

It is, however, very true that it’s almost impossible for a young person to get into farming these days with the high cost of good ground, machinery and operating expenses — that, in fact, is very hard, but should not be confused with the tasks of production. ❖

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