Growing up I always wanted one thing around this time of year: a ride with Santa. Yes, a sky-high journey with that burly, bearded Claus who reportedly could offer children a chance to see the world differently. It seemed like an adventure to me, one that would surely offer a more thorough understanding of Christmas.
As summer recedes and December approaches it appears that my wish was granted this past summer while riding shotgun to and from a farm near the small town of Ashland, Nebraska alongside a man who seemed to a twenty-year-old everything I imagined Santa Claus to be at age seven. For five weeks in the company of a farm operator I had the opportunity to broaden my understanding of commercial food production and the managerial complexity, associated risk, and arrant talent involved in much of agriculture today.
With three separate entities—crop production, cattle feeding, and conservation contracting—the “farm” I traveled to everyday was anything but pedestrian. Most mornings began during the dim hours headed north on a still Route 6, but my early conversations with him were exuberant. In between, and sometimes even during, calls to cattle buyers or astray truckers searching for highways into Ashland free of scales my host would talk to me about cattle market volatility, the method (or madness) ofnegotiation in the feedlot industry, and how trades for heifers and steers from Salina, Kansas hasten grain and livestock futures contracting in Chicago, Illinois. One topic led to the next, and by the time we crossed the railroads at Waverly, we were usually discussing broad issues ranging from the environmental concerns of industrial farming to the social tension in America between people who pejoratively view the actions of Corn Belt farmers and people who produce the food that fills those critics’ plates.
Our driving conversations soon carried over into late mornings and afternoons—anytime when the space for conversation transpired. “The marketplace is fiercely competitive,” he would say to explain the indistinct security governmental support for crop production provides. Daily, his business was subject to environmental and market persuasions. Although federal insurance policies and subsidies were valuable for his business, he was still one of many farmers who jockeyed within a bullish and bearish economy. Prior to hedging his crops, for example, he had to contemplate the eminent yield successes on farms in Iowa in addition to this summer’s drought-induced crop loss in Argentina. But he also could not forget about policy makers in China and Europe who through their governmental measures influence world demand and supply of staple grains. These conversations depicted the realities of an interdependent food market around the globe and helped me distinguish applications of macro-agricultural studies.
Everything I did became part of the learning experience. How could one truly know the size of a bushel of corn without crawling into a storage bin and scooping a truck load into a delivery chute? But before that corn was picked, the farmer had to select a specific variety to be planted from among the many genetically modified products advertised in catalogs and at events similar to a Monsanto luncheon I attended. The “relative maturity” grading system didn’t mean much to me until I ventured out through the warrens of corn and soybean rows to monitor milk lines and black layer emergence in different fields planted with disparate seeds. Working on the farm allowed me to learn hands-on of the agricultural science and technology I had previously studied within classroom walls.
Familiarizing myself with the farm’s operations did not come without mistakes, however. I will never forget the dexterous and visionary employees who taught me not just that wearing shorts while working on a farm is equivalent to modeling a Speedo at a consulting interview, but more importantly how complicated producing food is with advanced mechanized systems. Whether it be welding an auger for grain transfer, converting a piece of scrap metal into a rotating laptop computer harness for the cattle chute, or actually building a propane-powered irrigation pump, the competency of those with whom I worked was remarkable. I learned untold lessons and skills from colleagues, reminding me that a cattle pen could also be an educational setting.
But no business could be productive without a savvy leader. During my last few weeks in Nebraska I spent time alongside the manager I so esteemed. His ability to synthesize futures and cash market strategies, reconcile input and output data to avert risk, and heed both large issues and small in a multifaceted business was phenomenal. The organization was a machine in itself—protean, even despite its seasonality and daily routine.
I could spend many more months in Ashland refining my tractor driving capabilities and acquiring more knowledge of agricultural management and economics. I wish I could witness the crops reach adulthood and the combines combing those matured fields during the autumn months. Yet, I am grateful for the time I had there, and what I learned will help guide me as I continue to navigate through complex issues facing U.S. agriculture and international food security.
This year I will still anticipate Christmas and its enduring celebrity, but I will rest in bed just a bit more calmly on Santa’s night. My conversations in a Toyota truck this summer and the knowledge gained from the entire experience in Nebraska have sated my sleigh-riding hunger and enhanced my studies of food’s complexities. This farm experience was that kind of ride for me, allowing me to evaluate the impact of U.S. commercial farmers within a global agricultural network, admire those who cultivate what we eat, and seek a deeper understanding of food as a livelihood and resource.
Ever wanted to see the North Pole? Try Nebraska.