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In the Spotlight
by Rod Johnson

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Right? As long as your story is being picked up by magazines, newspapers and the like – it’s good. You don’t need to worry about those farm shoes with the mud on them or the dirty farm cap sporting the logo of an agribusiness company. After all, its part of the allure and image the American farmer wants to portray. It’s a slice of life. Any publicity is good publicity. Right?

When I was growing up in the 70s, agriculture was fighting to get some respect. Any publicity at the time was considered good publicity. Today, I’m beginning to wonder if all publicity is good. It seems to me; agriculture is receiving all of the publicity it wants, and more. Issues in the spotlight include stories relating to:

  • Why Are Global Food Prices Soaring?
  • Ethanol Demand Adds to Food Costs.
  • Global Warming, Immigrant Workers, Bio-Fuels and others.

Over the past year, agriculture seems like it’s been in the media spotlight more frequently than the previous 10-years combined. And where the plight of the farmer once was a national concern, today the American farmer is potentially being elevated to that of being the Big Bad Wolf. And we all know what happened in that story.

I see agriculture at a crossroads of sorts. On one hand, it wants to maintain its image as the provider to the world and as that of being the underdog. Events like FarmAid featuring icons like Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp have certainly propelled stories of the plight of the family farm into mainstream media in recent years. These served their purpose well. On the other hand, a new image of being an entrepreneur and world-class businessperson is beginning to emerge. Here, food or fuel stories are now taking center stage. Is a food shortage truly beginning to materialize? Will certain countries continue to curb food exports that would normally feed hungry mouths? These and other stories are now in the spotlight!

So how did we get here?

Goodwill is difficult to obtain and so easy to squander. Five years ago when the bio-fuels boom emerged, the world was a much different place. Excess grain supplies existed around the world. The ag economy was weak, with most farm families barely eking out a living. The world was experiencing vast prosperity. The bio-fuels emergence made perfect sense. Today however, the excesses in the pipeline are all but gone. The U.S. economy is on the verge of a recession. And the risk of a global food shortage is once again a possibility.

My forecast

A perfect storm is knocking on the doorstep of agriculture. I believe that within the next 10 years, second and third generation bio-energy technologies will displace the food or fuel debate we’re now facing in quick order. Corn and soybeans as a fuel source will be history. And during that time, the domestic livestock and poultry industries that served the grain industry well in recent decades will go through a transformation; this being the shutting down of productive capacity. And what about the consumer? How will they respond to higher prices for everyday needs? Will they still be our friends and supporters?

Many questions, and potential scenarios exist. Adrian Slywotzky, author of the book, The Upside, the 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs, makes two critical points worth pondering.

1. “Your moment of maximum risk is also your moment of maximum opportunity, and

2. Strategic risk is highest when your success is the greatest. That’s precisely the point where you are less able to see the risk and least inclined to do anything about it.”

Today, agriculture is experiencing phenomenal success and is also likely facing, maximum risk. Money is flowing freely across the industry, so its pretty tough to cry “Wolf,” although, maybe that’s what is needed. At the very least, caution is justified, simply because the risk factors are increasing.

This leads to the all-important question. If a perfect storm materializes, will the leaders of agriculture be ready to make the important decisions? And will they be ready to stand the heat of being in the spotlight? I’d suggest they be prepared – just in case.

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