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Consumer Reports

Debunking the myth of the 'dumb farmer' | (KRT) GLENWOOD, Minn. - Suzanne Vold, class of 1991, admits that a lot of her college friends have trouble understanding what she is doing out on a dairy farm in western Minnesota.

"I tell them I run a bed-and-breakfast for Holsteins," she said. When that doesn't work, she explains she's a "caregiver for 300 individuals with special needs."

She and her husband, Brad, are among the new breed of "smart farmers."

Academic institutions and farm groups are finding that commercial farms - mid- and large-sized farms that account for just 16 percent of the nation's total but produce 85 percent of its food - are run by people with more years of schooling, continuing education and degrees than the broader population.

Of course, the myth of the "dumb farmer" was always just that. Farmers who settled the Midwest in the 19th century started schools and colleges as well. While their descendants sometimes didn't attend as much school as people in towns and cities did, they kept up with new tools and ideas via extension service courses, clubs, co-ops and churches.

The difference today is tied to the much larger size and operating scope of farms. Two generations ago, a farmer raised a family on the proceeds of 160 acres, rotated among two or three crops, and kept track of accounts on a simple ledger. Now, farms of 1,000 or more acres are common, with four or more crops in rotation, and accounts are kept on computers providing real-time weather and commodity information.

The size and complexity of the Volds' farm, called Dorrich Dairy after Brad's parents Dorothy and Richard, illustrates why farmers are staying in school longer - and returning for more training more frequently.

Three families operate the farm together. In prior generations, each family would have had its own, smaller farm.

The Volds work with young farmer leadership training programs sponsored by farm organizations and their local cooperative. That's meant traveling to meetings in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and Washington.

They also get involved in consumer marketing and outreach events, trying to help to close the gap between farmers and customers. Their involvement in one such program ultimately brought them to the attention of Pizza Hut, which featured their farm in its nationwide "Summer of Cheese" promotion last year.

Suzanne Vold is armed with a bachelor's degree in economics from Wellesley College and an MBA from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as an investment analyst for RBC Dain Rauscher in Minneapolis.

After getting a bachelor's degree in agribusiness and economics from the University of Minnesota, Brad Vold worked for a commodities industry research firm before rejoining the family farm. He shares financial management responsibilities with his wife and dairy herd management duties with his father.

Brad's brother Craig joined them last year after graduating with an agronomy degree from South Dakota State University.

For Brad and Craig, returning to the farm after college "is a more traditional approach to entering agriculture," Brad said. But for Suzanne, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, putting a college education to work in farming represents both a business and lifestyle choice. She met Brad when they were students at the University of Minnesota.

She believes that any educational courses that provide a chance for "critical thinking" help a person run a farm. She likes the legend about Thomas Jefferson's insistence that agriculture be taught at the University of Virginia, which he started. His critics at the time questioned whether agriculture was a science. Jefferson argued that agriculture was the science of employing all known sciences.

"No one has improved on that definition," Suzanne said.

Paul Brutlag of Wendell, Minn., near Fergus Falls, had farmed for 15 years before deciding in the 1980s to enter law school. With a brother, Brutlag today works more than 6,000 acres and keeps a law office in Elbow Lake, Minn.

They share fieldwork. In the winter, Paul works on the administrative chores of farm programs and compliance with farming and environmental regulations. His brother, an educated agronomist, decides where to plant their corn and soybean crops.

Brutlag says he thinks his law degree helps him sort through difficult rules covering farm aid, insurance, fertilizer and waste containment. He doesn't think it's necessary for farming but says, "I can certainly see where MBA degrees would be a big help."

Getting a precise feel for the level of educational attainment on Minnesota's 79,000 farms isn't easy.

In the 1980s, the percentage of Minnesota farmers who attained some college education rose to 26 from 15, according to a Knight Ridder Newspapers analysis of 1980 and 1990 census surveys. The surveys are part of the University of Minnesota's Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, a sampling of responses from actual census forms.

Another sizable jump is expected to have occurred in the 1990s and will likely be reflected in detailed data from the 2000 census that will be available later this year.

Up in northwest Minnesota, Northland Community and Technical College in Crookston recently surveyed its 444 students and found that nearly half the respondents had four-year college degrees. A third had two-year degrees, and the others had some college experience, instructor Betsy Jensen says.

The Agricultural Technology and Family Farm Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison conducts the nation's most complete survey of farm educational backgrounds. Brad Barham, the director, said Wisconsin dairy farmers tend to keep farms in the family and have slightly less formal education than Wisconsin crop farmers. At the same time, both groups of farmers are increasing their educations, he said.

A survey in 1994 found 7.5 percent of Wisconsin dairy farmers had four-year college degrees while, a year later, the institute found that 10 percent of nondairy farmers had a bachelor's degree or more. The number of dairy farmers with bachelor's degrees increased to 9.5 percent in 2001, and last year the institute found that 15 percent of Wisconsin's nondairy farmers held that degree or higher degrees.

Women, who often serve as chief financial officers in family farm operations, may have even higher educational achievements than their male business partners or neighbors.

Doris Mold, an agriculture consultant in Lauderdale, Minn., who is president of the Minnesota Agri-Women organization, said most of the women she deals with in her group have at least a bachelor's degree. "When we look at the agriculture and horticulture industries, we see more women involved in all aspects from farming to education to processing and marketing. Increasingly, we see the whole chain more connected, more related, and needing a lot of talents," she said.

A smaller number of Minnesota farmers hold doctorate degrees. Many are former educators who have returned to the farm or combine farming with other professional careers. Two examples: Will Anthony, who took over a family farm in Nicollet after teaching economics at the University of Minnesota, and Tom Stinson, the Minnesota state economist, is an absentee operator of a family farm in Washington state.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services