sealPurdue News

July 1999

College degrees pay off for farmers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- You get up at the crack of dawn, feed the livestock, check the markets, mend a fence, run to town for a tractor part, fix the tractor, check the weather report on DTN, work on the farm records. The work is never the same from day to day, the conditions leave something to be desired in the blistering heat of summer and sub-zero temperatures of winter, and the payoff often is marginal -- if that. So why should a farmer bother getting a college degree?

"My college education is probably the best asset I've acquired," says Tom Hess of rural Vincennes, Ind. "It has allowed me to learn how to seek people out to help me pursue information, and to be familiar with what they're talking about when they answer my questions."

Hess, who earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University in 1990, says it also has helped him learn to seek alternative resources and to look at problems from different angles.

He says he believes that a higher level of education puts him on the same playing field as the suppliers and salespeople he meets when he buys the inputs for his 1,100-acre cash grain operation.

"As agriculture gets more technical, I have to be able to communicate and understand them," he says. "They're all out to make a buck, and they may not all be legitimate. I need to be informed and be able to gather information and weed out what I need to know."

Jay Hawley of Kirklin, Ind., a 1969 Purdue agricultural economics graduate, says the communication and people skills honed in college are beneficial. The hog farmer also says his college experience exposed him to a lot of different people and resources, and it broadened his horizons.

"With things being disastrous in the pork industry now, it's given me the ability to evaluate information from a variety of sources," he says. "It's opened doors."

Education didn't stop at graduation, though. His undergraduate experience has made him more receptive to continuing education seminars and workshops, and it has helped provoke thought and action. For example, a Purdue videoconference on the pork crisis caused by Depression-era prices gave him the push he says he needed to climb out of denial and keep going.

"I was in a daze," he says. "I thought, 'It can't be this bad.' The teleconference made me think in the long term."

Long-term thinking meant adopting some of the new pork production technologies rather than hunkering down, taking a second job and evaluating financial strategies. "College helped you tackle problems creatively," Hawley says. For example, he says after he decided he wanted to stay in pork production, he began looking at what he would have to do to succeed, such as buying new boars at bargain prices. "Sometimes you have to spend money to make money," he says.

Howard Doster, an agricultural economist and a "farmer's professor" at Purdue, says: "Experiencing classes and obtaining a college degree gives one an expanded perspective. Without that formal college experience, a person likely doesn't have that perspective.

"When surprises occur, a person with a rigorous college experience is more likely to look for opportunities in those surprises than be stymied or paralyzed by them."

The pork crisis could be a good example, according to Doster. He says some producers, worried about the short term, sold out or gave away their hogs. Others looked to the long term, thought things through -- perhaps as they did when faced with a college exam -- and decided to stick it out.

Curtis Oglesby is a member of the Purdue Young Farmers club. "Every year there are fewer and fewer farmers," says Oglesby, a sophomore from Brookville, Ind., who studies crop and soil management. "I want to make sure I'm one of them."

Hess says he doesn't think he'll ever be one of those farmers who's weeded out by tough times, but if he is, he says his degree will present him with other options.

"My grandma really encouraged me to go to college and get my degree," he says. "Her philosophy was that a good education is something that can't be taken away from you. I thought it was silly at the time, but as I've matured, I've realized that truer words were never spoken."

Sources: Howard Doster, (765) 494-4250; e-mail,

Tom Hess, (812) 886-6983

Jay Hawley, (765) 279-8956

Curtis Oglesby, (765) 743-6255; e-mail,

Writer: Andrea McCann, (765) 494-8406; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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