The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 18, 2008

Down on the farm

There’s something ironic about a farming and agribusiness expo being shortened because of something farmers deal with all the time — bad weather.

It’s a good thing I went to Farm Technology Days in southeastern Brown County Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon, the expo grounds were evacuated because of severe weather moving into the area, and the severe weather left more than two inches of rain, forcing the expo’s last day to be canceled.

Farm Technology Days is an interesting look into all the iterations of agriculture and agribusiness throughout the state. The list of exhibitors in an entire city of tents ran from A (A–A Exhibitors) to Z (Ziegler Ag Equipment). Farm equipment I don't recognize (my wife, the farmer's daughter, could have, but she wasn't there) mingled with everything from small lawn tractors to giant all-wheel-drive articulated tractors as tall as my house, along with pickup trucks, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, tractor–trailers, and even enormous semi-based recreational vehicles. I didn't get to participate in the various demonstrator opportunities, for driving tractors, lawn equipment, skid steer loaders, and so on. (I was wondering how I could get a John Deere representative to bring the high-feature lawn tractors to my house, which needs mowing.)

Your tax dollars were represented too. Five different agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were there. Twelve representatives of the University of Wisconsin System were present. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the Department of Natural Resources, and the Division of Public Health were all there too.

I've gone to two Farm Technology Days back when it was called Farm Progress Days. My grandfather, who sold farm implements (he had the previously mentioned station wagons stuffed to the roof with farm equipment catalogs), probably attended almost all of them from when the expo began in the 1950s until around his death in 1994. I've become more interested in agriculture over the years for two reasons — first chronologically, because I started working at a small-town newspaper out of college, so I got an education into farming, and even the byzantine way that milk prices are set. Then, I married into a farm family, so I got an even better education in farming from my late father-in-law and my brother-in-law.

(After living in rural areas for a few years, I was able to distinguish between the different sources of manure as I drove past a farm. Cow is the most common, but there are other sources; the worst is slurry, which comes out of the ironically named "honey wagon" after fermenting in tanks for the appropriate amount of time. My father-in-law called that, seemingly pungent enough to asphyxiate birds flying in the air, "the smell of money.")

Farms are where Wisconsin's vaunted work ethic began. Farming is an every-day activity, with no days off unless you can arrange for someone to do the daily work. (Dairy cows will react badly to your leaving them at 5 Friday afternoon and returning at 8 Monday morning expecting them to deliver milk immediately.) The former owner of the former fire truck builder 3-D Manufacturing in Shawano once told me he loved to hire farmers for his plant because they all worked hard and were mechanically inclined, because they had to be.

Farming is also about as tough a business as there is. You may notice that there are a lot of bare (and, if the weather forecasts for the weekend are to be believed, about-to-be-inundated) spots in farm fields this wet summer. Those non-planted areas generate expense, but no income. Think of this conundrum: If a farmer has a bad year for crops, the farmer gets little money. If a farmer has a good year for crops, the farmer may get little money if everyone else also has a good year for crops. It must be a bit unnerving for a farmer to borrow money to be able to plant crops and then hope he has enough money from selling crops to pay off the season-opening loan.

Farm products are an economic area where Wisconsin shines, and generally without the subsidies farmers in other areas of the country receive. (Farm subsidies, by the way, lead to what the federal government considers "excess capacity," leading to the government's paying farmers not to grow. The way to eliminate the "excess capacity" is to eliminate the subsidies, according to the Cato Institute's James Bovard.) Wisconsin doesn't just export food, but food processing machinery as well. This is why everyone in Wisconsin should favor free trade, because it benefits Wisconsin.

Farm Technology Days is, if nothing else, a reminder of how important agriculture is to Wisconsin’s economy. (Interesting facts about Wisconsin farming can be found here.) Any trip to a small town should be a reminder of that — implement dealers, seed and feed stores, car dealers that sell more pickup trucks than cars, food processing plants, and even farm equipment manufacturers — but those of us who live in larger areas of Wisconsin and perhaps never pay attention to what's outside our car windows when we leave those areas should pay more attention to our more rural areas. (One interesting statistic: The dairy industry contributes about $20 billion to Wisconsin's economy each year. Oranges contribute only $9 billion to Florida's economy, and potatoes contribute only $2.5 billion to Idaho's economy.)

The converse of the farming-ignorant is those who believe that farms are so sacred that they want nothing non-farm-related done to them. This poses problems given that many people in this state now live in, or on, what formerly was a farm field of some sort, the result of population growth and the reality that more food production can take place on less farmland today. The fact is that, bucolic as they may look, farms are factories, where production of crops and cattle take place. They may be more picturesque than your typical smokestack-equipped factory, but they are places of manufacturing, not something that exists for your pleasant view.

Think about that the next time you drive past a farm ... or try to decide on a beverage with your lunch.

No comments: