sealPurdue News

February 2000

Farmer's job description changing

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The farmer of tomorrow is more likely to push a pencil than pull a plow, says Purdue University agricultural economist Mike Boehlje.

"The new agriculture will require new skills," Boehlje says. "The skills will be more those of a general manager, with expertise in employee relations, marketing and strategic planning. That may not appeal to a guy who likes driving the tractor," he says. "In the past, hard assets were prized – land, machinery and equipment. The new structure will value knowledge, information and relationships more."

Many of today's farmers plant a few hundred acres in corn and soybeans. When crops emerge, they scout the fields for signs of insect and weed infestation, hope for timely rains, and monitor plant development. At harvest, they either sell the crop outright or store it until they deem it's a good time to sell.

Contrast that with Boehlje's vision of the biological manufacturer of the new millennium.

Tomorrow's farmer plants several thousand acres in a mix of crops – white corn, black beans, gourmet popcorn, ginseng – almost anything that he and his partners can secure a contract for. Ninety percent of the crop will be pre-sold. Crop insurance will put a floor beneath how much the farmer can lose, but the contractor also bears some of the risk as long as the farmer faithfully follows the buyer's guidelines. At harvest, the farmer holds the grain in separate storage bins until the customer calls for it.

That customer relationship Boehlje is talking about will be contractual, a sticking point for many farmers. The chance that they would become employees on their own farms irks many of them, but Boehlje sees these contracts as a way to share the risk and add value at the farm level.

These qualified suppliers will command premiums for their crops. They will be valued not only for their production skills, but also for their willingness to try new enterprises and adapt to consumer needs, he says.

It's not too different from what Don Villwock, a Knox County, Ind., farmer, has done for the last few years. He doesn't plant commercial corn or soybeans, preferring to grow white corn, popcorn and seed soybeans for the commodity price plus a premium.

Villwock grows popcorn that is close to ISO 9000 standards, manufacturing-quality parameters that make products welcome in any country on the planet. "I have to document production," he says. "They dictate when it's planted, what pesticides are used and when, no glass in the field, and so forth. They even say that herbicides used on that field the year before must be within parameters."

In exchange for following a strict regimen of production criteria, Villwock earns more than he would for common corn. However, he's already starting to see some dilution – so many people want to grow popcorn that the premiums are coming down.

"When it's safe, easy and doable, everybody will be doing it, and we'll have to find the next crop, the next innovation," Villwock says. But that will be another key characteristic of the new agriculture. Few farmers will be raising the same crops decade after decade.

Villwock's also trying to become the middleman between buyers and farmers who are willing to grow to specification. So far, it's been difficult.

"I think we're ahead of our time. The end-users are not sophisticated about it, surprisingly enough," he says. "They know they want the value-added materials. They want the relationship and they say 'we should talk,' but they're not ready to put anything down on paper."

Ironically, Villwock says, the first contract that his group may broker will be one for commodity corn, if they can certify that it contains no genetically modified organisms.

Sources: Mike Boehlje, (765) 494-4222;

Don Villwock, (812) 735-5450;

Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8396;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page