Friday, August 25, 2006

Inspiration from John Ikerd

I have only just been introduced to another fascinating mind within agriculture, John Ikerd. I owe a great debt to Linda Williams in Missouri for speaking so glowingly of his writings. Ikerd is a Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri.

I found one of Ikerd’s comments in his paper entitled "Farming with Purpose and Principles" startlingly accurate:

"Many farmers today don’t farm to make money; they make money so they can farm. Their purpose in life is to be a farmer."

In general, there are two types of small farmers I have encountered; generational farmers who grew up on the land and a tradition of farming; and then "everybody else." The "everybody else" category of farmers (which is a gross oversimplification) are in many ways the most progressive, and the most committed to protecting the land, and improving the quality of our food. Only a few of these individuals have defined farming as the purpose of their lives. Farming is a type of natural outworking of certain principles that are, or have become important in their lives. If they weren’t farming they might apply those same principles through another profession.

But a conventional generational farmer is a farmer to his very bone. In the last few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with a vast array of these farmers, from the "die hards" (which is an unfortunate term to refer to those who farm the way their father’s did), to the adaptive, to the principled. Ikerd further observes that "farming to them is not just a means of making money so they can buy things that make them happy; farming is the thing that makes them happy."

It is not uncommon for a family to work the equivalent of three, almost four full time jobs between two people just to hold onto the farm. There is an incredible pride amongst farmers in how hard one is willing to work for their passion. This combination of pride and passion motivates these individuals to work 12 hour days consistently, 16 hour days are not uncommon, and they keep such schedules 6 to 7 days a week. There is little to no separation between the farm life and a personal life, the way many of us think about our professions. "I am not my job," doesn’t apply in farming and "Saturday is just another day," not a holiday.

Many of these farms, if their account books were closely examined, would probably find that their net income per hour would place them amongst the lowest paid in the nation. If government payments were taken completely away, many of these farms would be operating at a loss. Wives work extra jobs, husbands drive a truck part-time (in addition to full-time farming), just in order to keep the farm. "The key to a successful farmer is a wife that works in town," is a scene played out again and again. As Ikerd says, these farmers literally make money, often at other jobs, just so they can continue farming; it is their purpose in life, and it makes them happy. And many of them are holding on by their fingertips.

Ikerd observes that happiness is the ultimate purpose of all human endeavors. Making money cannot be a reason for living. Money is always just a means of acquiring something else, something that we hope will make us happy.

Happiness comes from fulfilling our purpose in life, and our purpose in life is defined by our principles. I cannot say unequivocally that the most principled farmers that I have met are the happiest, but I have found them highly purposeful. Every measure upon their farm has meaning.

Ikerd makes a distinction between principles and values. Values can differ from individual to individual, whereas principles are true for everyone. In a time when truth is believed to be relative to the individual, it may be difficult to think as our founding fathers once did about a "natural law;" those self evident truths and common sense inherent within us all.

So what are the principles behind a good husband, a good leader, and a good farmer?

Final Food for Thought

"Economic value is determined by scarcity. To prosper economically, farmers must be willing to produce things that are scarce – things their customers cannot readily find elsewhere at lower costs. Today, there is a scarcity of ecological and social integrity, as well as high quality foods."

Read more from John Ikerd at:

This entry was posted on 8/25/2006 11:36 AM

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