Ever wonder what farmers do when they aren’t planting, tending or harvesting their crops? And when they get together, what do they talk about?
Dirt to Dinner wanted to know the answers to both questions. So we attended the winter conference of one of our major commodity sectors.
Here’s our report.
To My Colleagues at Dirt to Dinner,
Hello, everybody. And greetings from Atlanta.
I just spent three days in a cavernous hotel meeting room here, listening and watching several hundred farmers and various others across the supply and marketing chain that makes this sector of American agriculture work. They do all the things that keep the sector going — day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out — helping farmers remain successful and responsive to the demands of the world around them, and helping provide consumers and other customers around the world with an uninterrupted pipeline of a widely popular forms of a food they need and like.
I won’t name this particular sector of our agricultural system. To do so would be unfair to all the ag sectors out there. You see, every part I follow in the magnificent, complex agricultural system we have does most of the same things going on around me here. (I will note in passing for the curious among you, however, that health professionals cite the sector as one of the absolute top sources of plant protein – readily available and affordable to customers around the world, and ripe for further growth. I also consumed a lot of Jif in three days. Make of that what you will.)
This convocation is called a winter conference. It’s a rare chance to all come together to think and reflect, to analyze and plan, to share experience and opinion for the collective good. It comes after the harvest is in, but before the orchestrated circus of spring planting gets under way. It comes while they also need to spend long hours keeping the machinery of farming up to date and functioning efficiently, and lining up all the inputs essential to modern production.
The winter conference comes at a time when most of these farmers are busy planning for next year and beyond, analyzing trends in market prices, demand, costs and all the other dozens if not hundreds of factors that shape the bottom line.
After all, profitability is the key to everything – investment, innovation, and all the other things farmers need to do to grow and adapt continuously.
Like I said, to me this group really isn’t all that different from the other segments of our ag system. But they do have some interesting characteristics, and one that jumps out at me from the opening session tells me a lot about the people in the room. The chairman of this event opens the proceedings by inviting the room to rise for the pledge of allegiance.
It’s not an order, probably couched this way to accommodate the current political environment. But every man and woman in the room rises as one to do so. And when they do, I see it less as some sort of old-fashioned embrace of a world gone with the wind than a simple expression of the optimism and strong belief in shared human values I’ve heard across multiple hallway conversations. The next three days tell me my impression is probably spot on.
There is an optimism here – coupled with an unshakeable faith in the importance and value of what this particular sector of the American agricultural system does.
This definitely isn’t purely a chance to get away from home, see some old friends and have a party. The comraderie is there, certainly, borne of common values and a long-shared history of constant effort to get better – in how they produce their crops, how they better serve their customers, how they better understand what the market is telling them about its needs and expectations. There are three full days of serious business at hand.
No small part of the program is devoted to coping with a world that seems to be changing faster and faster every day. The list of issues is amazingly long:
- What regulators and consumers want from complex labeling requirements
- How to sort through conflicting points of view on scientific and technical matters
- How to respond to increasingly stringent regulatory requirements related to product quality, dietary considerations, points of origin, genetics, strange things called ‘non-tariff trade barriers,’ and more
- How to figure out the role of social media in telling the sector’s story to the wider and wider circles of people becoming more and more important to its success
Break-out sessions focus on existing domestic and export markets. How do we deliver more value to our customers? How do we diversify our offering to match changing customer needs, or to tap into new opportunities to sell our crops? What do we need to do to maintain our best existing markets in the face of growing international competition? How do we make those markets grow? What new markets have real potential for us, and what do we need to do to penetrate them? What are our competitors doing that we aren’t doing, or aren’t doing as well as they are?
Other long hours go to a review of the aggressive research program funded by the growers. How do we decide where to invest in the solid science people need to fully appreciate our crops? How do we prioritize among research to improve production efficiency and grower profitability, versus research to counter misperceptions or out-right misinformation about the health and safety aspects of our products? And how do we best get the accurate and complete word out to all the people who need to hear it, with so many competing voices and such entrenched yet mistaken points of view? How do we express our story, and how do we tell it better?
It’s a dizzying schedule of important topics, all posing real challenges. To many people, I suppose, the list would simply be too long and tough. The easy way out obviously would be to throw up your hands, walk away, leave it to someone else or some PR agency to deal with, and hope for the best. Just concentrate on the farming. Grow the best crops you can, as profitably as you can. This group will have none of that kind of thinking.
The program highlights a comprehensive three-year strategic plan that cuts across all these issues, and more. It’s the result of months and months of hard work, and it outlines a roster of possible and recommended actions. To an outsider like me, the plan appears to be a bit shorter than the Old Testament, but maybe a tad longer than the New Testament. No matter. This group starts tearing into it immediately with real enthusiasm. To me, it’s an amazing display of the innate optimism and confidence in a better future for our sector, if we all pull together in this.
Yep, I’m impressed by what I see here around me. And it rattles me a bit, too. My colleagues tell me I’ve become a cynical old man, a true curmudgeon about the social and political chaos I see around me, and the fragmentation and polarization of what used to be seen as a society based in certain shared beliefs and characteristics.
These three days have shaken that cynicism, more than a little.
But the crowning epiphany in my realization that at least part of our world is still on track comes in a relaxed dinner conversation with Dan Ward, a producer from my home state of North Carolina. We’re talking about the steady stream of challenges his family has seen over seven generations of farming. I ask him about one of the big topics from the conference schedule – a small matter labeled ‘sustainability.’ The program outlines all the many and costly efforts underway to deal with cropping and production issues, with water use and quality, soil replenishment and regenerative techniques, and on and on and on. How do you ever find time to wrap your head around all of that, I ask innocently enough. He just laughs at me.
“It’s not that complicated to me,” he says as he reaches for his smartphone and in a heartbeat displays the picture that makes up his phone wallpaper. It’s beautiful two-day old baby girl, wrapped in a near Carolina-blue blanket, lying perfectly positioned between two lush, text-book handsome rows of his farm’s top crop.
It’s calendar-quality beautiful.
“In 20 or 25 years,” he explains, “my granddaughter Blakely will have the choice of becoming the ninth generation of our family to farm this land. That will be her choice. My job is to leave this farm in the best possible shape it can be…even better than it is now, if I can. I want her to be able to make that choice because we have something that lasts and she can be proud of.
“I have to stop and think about every decision I make in operating this farm and ask if what I’m doing will help her make that decision, one way or another. And you know which one I want it to be.”
I left the conference on an admitted high.
Perhaps I am an old geezer, long past my prime and admittedly out of touch with many of the popular prevailing trends in thinking and attitudes.
But I found the can-do attitude and sheer work ethic on display here to be cause for optimism. It’s another prime example of the spirit that keeps our agricultural system constantly at work to address whatever it needs to confront to keep doing its job — which is to provide a steady stream of the high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable food people everywhere need.
I also took comfort in the special part of the program devoted to recognizing one person from the food industry for his life-long contributions to the sector. The audience rose as one again in recognition of a highly respected African-American research and development scientist and all he has done to advance to the best interests of farmers and others across the chain from dirt to dinner. Recent health issues perhaps slowed his normal confident stride just a bit, and it took a few moments for him to reach the podium. But the applause never diminished, and the back-slapping and hand-shaking in the corridors afterward made his departure a very protracted event, too. This whole sector just seems to work together far more than I ever fully appreciated.
We’re in good hands with people like this, I thought silently. Our ag system is going to be fine. Just fine.
See you soon.
Best to all,