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Uncertainty is certain

Any farmer will tell you, in production agriculture things don’t always go as planned.  In fact, I often hear farmers refer to farming as a gamble. Farmers never know from the beginning of each growing season if their efforts will pay off.

A farm, like all businesses, is subject to many different variables that can be determining factors in achieving profit. One variable that sets agriculture apart is the hardest to predict and plan for.

The weather, when cooperative, can be a farmer’s best friend in terms of raising successful crops and providing ample forage for livestock. Many times, Mother Nature proves to be agriculture’s biggest adversary. The widespread drought of 2012 and the regional drought the previous year are prime examples of what a lack of moisture does to food production.  

The flip side of that extreme is too much moisture. What farmer in the Midwest could forget the Mississippi flood of 1993, which covered whole fields with water, drowning 20 million acres over nine states? Wind and hail also damage crops and infrastructure. On May 3, much of Missouri received snow. This particular phenomenon hasn’t happened since 1929, our local meteorologist says.

What many non-agriculture folk may not realize is in years when the weather is not extreme it can still be devastating to a farmer’s livelihood. A late frost in the spring may seem like an inconvenience for the urban dweller who must scrape the windshield of their car before going to work. To the farmer who has a peach or apple orchard, or a field with tender corn sprouts emerging from the ground, a late frost can mean major yield and income losses.

Many farmers find market fluctuations for their commodities just as frustrating. Many things can affect the price we get for the food we produce. Aside from normal supply and demand pressures on the market, world and U.S. economies, as well as hedge fund managers who move investments in and out of agriculture commodities, have significant influence. Farmers always plan for a small profit after crops and livestock are sold. Imagine the disappointment when something completely out of the farmer’s control causes the market to plunge, causing their profit potential to dive as well. This uncertainty can make financial planning difficult for the best of farmers.

In light of the challenges, it’s a wonder why America’s farmers and ranchers continue the age-old practice of food production. To see one’s crops wither and die in a drought and try to make loan payments, all while putting in long hours, can make any farmer or rancher ask if it’s worth it. I have to laugh about what one old farmer said about the way we make our living: “If it were about the money, then everyone would be hungry because farmers and ranchers would be doing something else.”

In agriculture, an optimistic attitude is crucial. After each bad year, we tell ourselves that “next year will be better,” knowing it may not. Uncertainty does keep this way of life interesting. After all, who would want perfect weather all year long with the right amount of rainfall at the right time while getting enough for our efforts to have black ink on the bottom line at year’s end?  A farmer would.

(Glen Cope, a fourth generation beef producer in southwest Missouri, is past chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.)

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