February 18, 2017

Saving the world through a mid-life crisis

This week my School held a meant-to-be-comforting meeting for its junior faculty to discuss the future in uncertain times, and a few of us who are starting to get long in the tooth were invited to provide some perspective. It occurred to me that perhaps hoping for comfort from a set of people with their own mid-life ponderings highlighted by tinges or splotches of gray hair was not the best idea, but we vamped. We rose to the moment to talk about our early days, and we spoke from the heart about how we had turned mistakes into eventual success. And, there were cookies, so everyone went home happy.

As the cookie was digested, happiness turned to thoughts of insignificance for me, as the message most clear from the meeting was that there will always be young folks to take your place, and they might even be smarter than you. So, Mr. Senior Faculty Member, just remember that as you think about retirement and the need for the University to keep you around. I sulked.

Years of experience have contributed to my current grumpiness, as my initial plans for saving the world have gone south.  I blame my high school speech teacher for starting this with an off-handed comment that someone with an unusual name like mine is destined for greatness. So, I started my quest. The world slapped back more than once, but somehow I arrived where I wanted to go--a University campus with brick buildings filled with people using phrases like "high impact" and "science-supported decisions" and "learning objectives," and it felt like home. Some successes occurred. Struggles eventually resulted in advances. Brilliant opportunities happened. Even then, I realized that the singular demographic principle that I studied, rate of growth, had turned to bite me, as my long-term goals were still farther in the distance than I wanted. And, the years left in my career could now be counted using some of the digits on my four appendages.

I suppose this is how a mid-life crisis happens.

My internal ponderings have not led to purchases of candy-red sports cars or the like. But, one does start to compare yourself to those nearby as you claw for examples of relevance and meaning in your day-to-day existence. My father figures, in their own ways, made contributions to their communities--one kept a small town's vehicles running for almost half a century and the other solved micro-economic problems for farm families. Although they set the bar of relevance fairly high, I suppose there are lessons in their stories about finding your niche and doing a job well to help people.

But, how does their impact compare to pile of published manuscripts about ducks and prairie chickens and a rotating door of students through my classes? Further, the world still was an environmental mess. A real mess. Maybe worse than when I started?

The cookie from our faculty gathering was mostly a forgotten entity by the time my wife and I called our son on the same night this week to chat. He is at the University in his first year, and I suppose his new-found ability to fend for himself and mostly excel at life decisions is also cause for a realization that my wife and I have one less responsibility in this world. Still, he needs life-polishing from time to time, and I had noticed a $38 charge on his student account that had not been explained. I used my conversation time to ask him what kind of illicit material he had charged to us.

"I needed a new SD card for my camera for class," he replied, which was disappointing as I hoped it would be something outrageous like two large pizzas or a video game, so we could have a discussion about good choices.

"Well, you owe me $38," I muttered.

"How about I pay you back by saving the environment?" asked the idealistic kid with no job, who didn't know he'd just landed a glancing blow on a sensitive spot on my psyche.

"Good," I retorted as I recovered. "Because, I'm not going to get that done."  And, that was the honest truth. I had given up.

"Well, we'll know a lot more about prairie chickens," he replied.  And I was finished. Game, set, match. Points go to the man-boy, who made his parents roll with laughter fueled by pent-up anxiety. A message of comfort laced with truth. 

Do what you can, where you can. Save the world a little bit at a time. And, keep making those big goals, son.

February 11, 2017

Downturn in the ag economy: Trump and the 2018 Farm Bill

If you are a member of the ag community, your head must be spinning--and for good reason. The President you helped to elect is eliminating trade deals that benefit you, while the ag economy stumbles. Layer on top of these dynamics the divisive Congress in DC, and hopes for a timely 2018 Farm Bill appear slim.

In 2015, I published an essay on the impending bust in the ag economy, in which I suggested planners should begin to think about the 2018 Farm Bill as an opportunity for an innovative direction for conservation on farm lands. I wrote: "History shows that political will and innovation come together during times of economic crisis to shape the future of conservation."

Since writing that piece, I've honestly been amazed at the trepidation of the ag community to admit that a bust in the ag economy was on the horizon. You can see this hesitation in the descriptions offered by many (except for farmers directly involved) in this recent piece by Harvest Public Media. However, this week, the Wall Street Journal (a non-ag publication) finally declared that the bust is here. Why the hesitation to talk about impending economic woes? Is it a function of the typical optimism of farmers?  Is it a function of the PR machine of agri-industry that has a vested interest to encourage large-scale production of low-price corn and beans?  Or, is it simply a human tendency to hide your eyes before a crisis occurs? 

Trepidation or not, the bust is occurring, and we have to talk about it. We have to plan for it.

I've updated the figure on land values from that journal article to post it here.  The trends for states in the Great Plains and Midwest illustrate changes in my metric for assessing booms and busts--comparing current land values to land values 10 years ago.  The use of this metric clearly shows past booms and busts, and 2013 was the peak for most states.  The question now is...when will the slide towards the bottom of the trough stop? 

Here, I'll restate my call to my fellow conservation planners with a focus on the 2018 Farm Bill.  It turns out that 2018 is perfectly positioned to be near the bottom of the trough, most likely--and the innovative farm conservation packages of the 1930's, 1950's, and 1980's came about right at the bottom of the trough. 

Stay tuned.  I'm sure President Trump will have a chaotic effect on events in the next few months, but I'll predict that political will to support the ag economy may surface, just in time for the mid-term elections!  When do those occur? 2018.