ABERDEEN, S.D. — For 25 years, John Phipps has been adding humor and insights to the culture of American agriculture. Humor, however, was not part of his talk during the South Dakota Farmers Union State Convention in Aberdeen.
Instead, Phipps focused on the unpredicted changes impacting today’s farmers and ranchers.
“The future we thought was going to happen probably isn’t,” said Phipps, a farmer, engineer and woodworker, during his “Rebuilding the Future” talk.
Forecast growth in global population and export markets, which motivated U.S. farmers to increase acres, yields and embrace precision ag technology, are simply not happening, Phipps explained.
“Now, instead of 20 billion by 2050, it looks like global population will peak at 8.5 billion around 2060,” he said.
Listen To What Consumers Have To Say
Predicting consumer trends is not easy, but Phipps suggested if farmers spend more time listening to what consumers have to say, they would not be blindsided by trends that impact their markets — like artificial protein.
“Don’t kid yourselves that people want the real thing,” he said, sharing an example of Cool Whip versus real whipped cream. “There is nothing wrong with real whipped cream, but Cool Whip is what my grandkids want on our pumpkin pie. We have a generation growing up who expect whipped cream to taste like Cool Whip.”
Phipps applies similar thoughts to climate change.
“Farmers have got to start thinking a little more widely and allow for some chance,” he said.
“Maybe I could compromise my ideas of whether or not climate change is real and, instead, ask ourselves, ‘what am I going to do with the information?’”
In response to climate predictions, Phipps said he and his sons put in drainage tile.
So, What Are We To Do?
Faced with many factors out of their control, Phipps encourages farmers to make decisions today that will pay off for the next generation.
“We need to forget how to position our farm for the next five years,” he said, “and ask ourselves, ‘how can I position the farm for my grandson?’”
To deal with tight margins, Phipps encourages farmers to take a hard look at every enterprise on their farm.
“Ask yourself, is it contributing to the bottom line,” he said, “or, does it just keep me busy?”
And even consider off-farm income.
“The idea that we want to live on our farm and only do the kind of work that we love — don’t expect someone to pay you for it,” said Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Illinois, who writes humor and commentary for Farm Journal and Top Producer and was the host of U.S. Farm Report from 2005 to 2014.
“Farmers need to take a look at their skills and ask themselves how they can deploy these skills. Farmers need to stop thinking about what types of income are acceptable. If it is legal, you need to figure out some way to attach another income to the farm.”