Perspective: The Return Of The Brightest

November 26, 2013 06:52 PM
John Phipps

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One of agriculture’s accomplishments during the recent good years has been to finally address the long-standing lament of "losing our best and brightest" from the farm. For too long, our offspring have had to make do with second-rate careers like law, medicine and technology, which rank below farming in our esteem.

But suddenly there was a window of opportunity to slice the pie into big-enough pieces to make a transition possible, and the chicks came home to roost. Similar to the 1970s when many of our first college-educated producers came home to farm, this influx has changed the face and pace of farming.

Suddenly it makes sense to have young farmer meetings (like Tomorrow’s Top Producers). Our
discussions have new enthusiasm, and there are fresh faces in the crowds. But as one who has participated in an unexpected homecoming, I have learned from my and my peer group’s experiences about unanticipated consequences.

"Being harnessed beside an eager partner means we have to fight the urge to simply hold on to the status quo and embrace the hazards of ambition."

For example, many of us are reminded what it’s like to be intensely ambitious. Making great plans is well and good, but some unexpected circumstances during our careers, like the 1980s, tempered expansion fever with a sense of caution that’s only learned after a brutal setback.

Nonetheless, suddenly being harnessed beside an eager partner means we have to fight the urge to simply hold on to the status quo and embrace the hazards of ambition.

I had also forgotten the impatience factor. If my early writings are any indication, new entrants today are less likely to be exasperated by delayed rewards than was I. Maybe we just taught them not to whine as much. Still, the idea that a goal might take a decade to come to fruition doesn’t seem unacceptable to them.

As our youth filter back to neighboring farms, we also discover that applauding the return of our best and brightest is one thing in the abstract, but quite another when it manifests as a competitor across the road. Many of us appreciated the more genial rivalry of the "average and adequate." It’s surprising how just a few go-getters can raise the performance bar for entire communities. This acceleration is not welcome for late-career coasters.

The idea of right and proper conduct in the field and out is in for some revision, as well. Early risers wanting to knock off at sunset perplex a generation whose days began (at best) around noon. A cacophony of communication invades our cabs, which were once places of blissful isolation.

New Level of Competition. Continuous learning takes on urgency for both parties to avoid being seen as ignorant of either beneficial history or new technology. In the process, a pattern for rewarding conversation can be forged. While these exchanges are not easily begun, the result is a powerful competitive tool that unleashes unused potential.

Above all, their presence alone triggers memories unvisited for decades. We ask ourselves, "Was I ever that driven (or drifty/dedicated/short-sighted)?" Perhaps our cynicism needs such naiveté for balance. Happily, such clashes of professional philosophy can form the basis for a vigorous shared hybrid attitude.

Farming has become a profession of first choice, rather than the path of least resistance. Entry is
coveted, and the competition level matches other envied careers. But as standards rise, the odds of entry failure increase. Good and bright might not suffice for a sustainable career, and the relentless effort to contend with accomplished peers means a more strenuous path for those who join our ranks.

In various ways and for multiple reasons, we have increased the performance standard of our industry. But the biggest one of all was recruiting what might be the best class of rookies in our history. 

John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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