Renewable Farming

One of the wisest bits of economic advice I’ve ever heard

One of the most widely followed ag market analysts in the early 1970s was Jim Gill of Illinois. Toward the conclusion of his corn and soybean outlook presentations, he frequently offered long-term views into the future. With 20-20 hindsight, I’ve realized these  “megatrends” are the most momentous signals for farming’s critical decisions. 

April 18, 2018 Weekend essay by Jerry Carlson — In the 1970s I was often the emcee for Pro Farmer outlook seminars featuring Jim Gill. He knew fundamental and technical prospects for the grains, and he also understood that the total economic landscape can shift in both subtle or sudden ways. He warned that the corn-soybean price boom of the 1970s could topple without warning. It did. But all through the 1980s agony of 20% interest rates and economic crash in agriculture, Jim encouraged us that the pain wouldn’t last forever. It didn’t. 

His message was that unexpected economic earthquakes were the most momentous threats — and opportunities — for farmers. And they’re the hardest to really believe and prepare for. (I wish I’d listened more closely to Jim just before I leveraged into two Iowa farms in 1981.)

I learned the hard way to follow one recommendation Jim made at most of his ag outlook presentations. Read the Wall Street Journal each day. His point: By absorbing major trending events in the global economic landscape, you’ll be able to prepare. Such powerful trends are ignored by most of the sensation-grabbing, minute-by-minute media. Gradually, you’ll discern economic tensions before they snap. Such panics are what Fed Governor Alan Greenspan described in 1995 as “a cascading sequence of defaults that will culminate in financial implosion, if allowed to proceed unchecked.” 

You can also pick up useful clues in WSJ’s analysis of technical trends. Example: A report by Costas Paris in the “Markets” section today is headlined, “Cold Shipping in Hot Demand as the World Craves More Fresh Food.” It details how climate-controlled shipping containers, or reefers, enable year-round global shipping of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats to satisfy rapidly growing demand for fresh, whole foods. Other reports indicate that a growing share of this market is non-GMO and organic. 

Your smartphone and the easy-to-read WSJ app offers instant access to updates, 24/7. I canceled our newspaper delivery and rely totally on internet sources. 

Jim recommended reading the WSJ not just for its careful research, but for its internal balance. The staff dueled with a daily tension of “progressive” young news reporters versus a seasoned, economically conservative Editorial Board. Here’s one reason I could accept the significance of Jim Gill’s “read the WSJ” advice more readily than most farmers: I was an Iowa State journalism friend and colleague of Bob Bartley. Bob became Editor of WSJ’s editorial pages in 1972. Bob eventually became Editor of the entire WSJ. Bob knew that the “news” with the most business significance was not the bizarre, breaking events which attracted mainstream media flocks. He tried to anticipate the groundswells of volcanic economic pressures which few economists or politicians have the intellect or resources to probe.

Bob died in December 2003 at age 66. The WSJ staff honored his passing in an editorial which emphasized that Bob Bartley “…tried to understand what was happening and why. That searching led him time and again to sources and minds who challenged the status quo.”

That Bartley influence has endured on WSJ’s editorial pages. I especially look for wisdom from Kimberly Strassel, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. and James Freeman. The paper’s “Weekend Interview” includes contrarians from the full spectrum of economic and philosophical backgrounds. Reader responses selected by the editors are usually reasoned and enlightening, a welcome contrast to the usual shrill and profane threads of reader commentary on most news websites. The WSJ remains one of the few national newspapers in a world where icons of the daily newspaper industry are being mined instead of maintained. This view of the death of dailies explains a lot.

We need more “challenging the status quo” in agriculture today. A lot more. Here at Renewable Farming, we challenge many of the icons of conventional farming promoted in the ad-supported press. In the 1980s at Pro Farmer, I pushed for a contrarian and often controversial seminar series on Renewable Farming which focused on soil biology rather than NPK and chemicals. Leveraging the power of nature, not lashing it to death with toxins.

Now, as the 2018 farming season opens with what’s probably the fastest fieldwork race in history, “soil health” titles are showing up in national farm magazines. Unabated editorial enthusiasm for the latest pesticides and transgenic technology is quietly fading. I’ve read that there are more than 300 new “biological” products now on the market. How you’re expected to sort and select among those is way beyond my ken. 

The WSJ has reported for several years on consumer trends toward more health-giving, toxin-free diets. It wasn’t until early 2016 that a major U.S. farm publication began surfing this wave: That February, Successful Farming began a feature series echoing that trend with the cover article, “Meet your New Boss.” Successful was referring to young American Moms and their families. Now we have Moms Across America, an activist group urging healthy diets for healthier children. Plus a wide array of “Food Revolution” websites and movies.

Here are emerging ag megatrends I encourage you to watch and prepare for:

1. Dramatically reduced dependence on chemical weedkillers. Starting with a phaseout of glyphosate, as weed resistance undermines its usefulness and clinical evidence undermines the theory that it’s as safe for humans as table salt.

2. Quiet loss of confidence and enthusiasm that GMOs will feed the world. The mantra of totally safe, invariably beneficial transgenic crops is withering as more farmers and more consumers “go non-GMO.” Surprised?  Visit GM Watch or the Organic and Non-GMO Report.

3. Increasingly fierce public resistance to several insecticides, especially the neonicotinoids. The European Union is formally banning them for use in open fields.

4. Desperate and gradual abandonment of the “global warming” — oops — “climate change” gravy train. We’ve touched on this many times, including this recent report.

5. Global overhang of unpayable public and private debt. This would not be as worrisome if so many democratic legislatures weren’t approaching dysfunction — virtually unable to enact or adhere to a sustainable fiscal plan. The strong signal for you as a producer: Build a resilient farming operation, both financial and agronomic. Think of how you’d fare if dollars are worthless and the power grid fails.

6. A spiraling public disease crisis across America. Rates of chronic diseases are soaring, in parabolic curves. If current health trends persist,  autism will debilitate half of America’s children in 10 to 15 years. In just seven years at current trends, Americans will spend more on medical care than on food. 

7. Emergence of farming innovators who are becoming low-cost, profitable producers with biologically sound technologies. Not just one idea, but a melding of cover crops, microbial and biostimulant yield boosters, non-GMO seed, reduced tillage and many more. We work with many of these. They’re enjoying farming — and we’re enjoying our work with them. This is our favorite “megatrend!”