Ernie Flint.
Ernie Flint.

Those who read these weekly wanderings of my questionable mind are familiar with all the technical topics we talk about as Extension agents. We have some of the most academically talented people in the world, literally, working for the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

In many ways, our agents, specialists, and researchers both with Extension and the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station comprise a body of knowledge that could deal with any of the challenges farmers face in the southeastern United States and beyond.

The challenge we as Extension Agents face every day is how to transfer the knowledge we have gained from experience, research, and good old fashioned common sense to growers who in many cases have the courage and optimism to venture into farming as a vocation, but who in so many cases do not have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. I often think of the irony of this scenario in which so many farmers possess the abundance of optimism and raw courage required to take the risks posed by nature as they enter the field to plant crops and manage all forms of livestock each year.

Although I have farmed, first with rice in the Delta, and later here in the Hills with cotton, I still fail to have the courage to do it again because I am extremely aware of the risks.

However, the truly brave individuals scarcely think of these things as they go about planting the seeds for a new crop each spring. These individuals are our benefactors, because without them we would starve, literally.

I have a close friend who is one of the few remaining dairy farmers in a region which at one time supported several dairy products processing facilities. Now he and his family continue on as his father and grandfather did, husbanding the same Jersey cattle that were familiar to me as I grew up on a similar farm. Some of his cattle resemble those I knew, and look so much like them that I want to call them by their names. This dairyman has summed up the comparison between gambling at a casino and farming. He refers to gambling at a casino as “fast farming,” and in a sense he is correct.

There is one distinct difference between the classical definition of gambling and the kind of risk-taking that farmers experience. In farming there is an opportunity to “stack” the odds in ones favor by applying proven practices. It would be difficult to apply mathematical formulas to these odds, but I would like to believe that today we can remove almost all of the production risks except those imposed by extremes of weather. And there are innovative methods for limiting the risks related to economics and marketing.

Today, the most successful growers are those who practice both innovative production practices and aggressive marketing techniques. Some of those who have been slow to adopt these ideas have slipped behind while in fact some of those who cling to the tried and true methods of the past have also been successful. I will be the first to admit that the newfangled method is not always the answer. Consequently we still see that the old saying “be not the last to lay the old aside nor the first by whom the new is tried” is as useful today as it has ever been.

The great leveler among farmers is optimism, at least in my opinion. I have never seen a truly optimistic and realistically conservative farmer suffer the abysmal failure that either the overly conservative or the wild gambler type growers sometimes experience. Optimism does not mean stupid, but to me it means well-planned progress through a period of years in which a farming operation is allowed to evolve into what the land and the grower can deal with successfully and profitably. You might say it stays within the bounds of sustainability over the long term.

Next time you meet a farmer, thank him (or her) for being the courageous individual required to provide our nation with food and fiber. Optimism, sure they have it, but they have a lot of help from the ultimate caretaker of us and our land. Merry Christmas everyone.

- See more at: