Keep your farm above water in 2009: Think change

While the automakers were pushing for their bailout package on Capitol Hill this week, General Motors bought a full-page ad and admitted to consumers that it made mistakes (although it was buried in the trade publication Automotive News, which is read more by industry execs and lobbyists than Joe Consumer. Go figure.).

“At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards…” the Washington Post reports the ad read. “… we lost adequate focus on the core U.S. market.”

Indeed.

Nimble and reactive, the automakers are not. But they could be: One industry expert estimates Honda can flip an assembly line in 10 days, switching from one production model to another.

Unfortunately, U.S. agriculture is often like the Big Three automakers — slow to change and slow to respond to consumers. Yes, I realize we have a lot of capital tied up in machinery and equipment, acres tied up in crop rotations, and management intellect tied up in specific commodities. But to keep pace with the turmoil, you can’t hunker down and keep making SUVs.

First, figure out where you are financially. Are your financial resources solid? How are your cash reserves? Do you need to restructure your balance sheet? Can you refinance debt?

Then, answer this personal challenge: Will you choose to be negative about the current economic situation and its impact on your farm business, or will you choose to be positive and look for opportunities?

Be the hope you wish to see in the industry.

There is no lack of innovation in agriculture. There is no shortage of creativity, ideas and concepts. Who is leading the way? Learn from them.

“Growers who focus on innovation as a core value will find success,” says futurist Jim Carroll. “Their innovation will focus on the triple-feature need for growth, efficiency and ingestion of new science.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean growth as in getting bigger, it could mean growth as in taking advantage of a niche market (food-grade soybeans).

Take off your blinders and look outside of agriculture for inspiration, instead of taking advice from the same old sources.

“Winners in a downturn typically invest to gain share in their core businesses,” writes business author Darrell Rigby (emphasis is his) in his forthcoming book Winning in Turbulence.

Look for partners. You grow, they sell. They grow, you sell. They grow, you buy and add value, then sell. Even if you produce a commodity produce like milk, there are internal opportunities for collaboration.

Farmers are a resilient lot. Many years ago, I wrote about the “Tony Bennett factor,” that the singer had a long career and was being rediscovered by new generations because of his ability to be resilient and reinvent himself. Just the other day, I read the same comments being applied to rocker Neil Young. Now in his fifth decade of recording albums, Young remains strong because he keeps experimenting. Innovating.

Think about your soybean or corn crop in the heat of a dry August. If the crop was managed well, its roots are deep enough to withstand a long dry spell. And so are you.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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