Perspective: A Declaration of Interdependence

This week, I’m featuring a guest author, John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., TV host of "U.S. Farm Report" and Farm Journal columnist.

*Originally published July 27, 2011 in Top Producer

With our economy struggling to provide employment for all who want to work, references to "jobs" carry powerful overtones. Defenders of agriculture recognize this. They have manufactured a statistic that begs for verification: the number of jobs that "depend on" agriculture. This is usually asserted to be in the vicinity of 20 million.

Nailing down this factoid is tricky. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics is often cited as a source, it does not count "dependent jobs." According to econometricians at the Bureau of Economic Analysis who actually tabulate such numbers, employment in agriculture is about 740,000. So where do the rest come from?

Answer: Anywhere you want. Since farms link to food, for example, you can add any occupation that links to food in any way. It’s the ag equivalent of the "Six Degrees of Separation" game.
But what exactly does "depend on" mean? Apparently, you can count occupations on both sides of the value chain.

Do you sell to farmers? You’re dependent. Do you buy from farmers? Ditto. I wonder why they stopped at 20 million.

Conveniently left unexplored is any comparison with other industries. Using the same methodology, how many jobs depend on the petroleum industry? On mining? Until both the definition and context of this number are made plain, it can fairly be seen as arbitrary.

But, setting aside the quality of this claim, there is, I believe, a larger and more hazardous aspect to flogging dependence on agriculture: It is exactly the wrong way to garner support.

Farmers have never been adept at empathizing with other ways of life. The many unique aspects of our work tend to make us think others don’t think and feel the way we do. But our feeling of dependence is a universal human sentiment.

Take our relationship to landowners. Most farmers share my unease with our dependence on the goodwill of someone else just to be able to farm land. Farmer "jobs" clearly depend on landowners. It is one reason we consistently pay "too much" for land—we are buying a chance to escape from that feeling of dependence.

So why do we imagine the rest of America enjoys being reminded that they are dependent on us? Gen. George Marshall said it best: "If you want a man to be for you, never let him feel he is dependent on you. Make him feel you are in some way dependent on him."

Wrong Approach. If I can spot this communication blunder, I am sure the media experts who include it in every "agvocacy" message are aware of it as well. This raises my suspicion that it is not meant as a message to others; it is meant to persuade farmers themselves.

We love to be the ones others are dependent on, and we love even more to hear it. So my rule of thumb is to assume the agvocates are looking to get into my mind/heart/pocket.

Like the misguided self-esteem-parenting scheme of a few years ago, this "bragvocacy" nugget is unhelpful to both our industry and those we serve. It hinders collaborative progress and better understanding of customer needs.

Economic transactions are basically exchanges of dependency. It is why they occur in the first place. My customers depend on me for corn; I depend on them for money. In a willing transaction, those accounts cancel each other out, not accrue in one direction.

Acknowledging our dependence on others does not diminish us. Those who refuse to recognize their reliance cannot prepare themselves for link failures and risk a rude economic shock.

Egocentric "job dependence" sloganeering taints our industry’s business connections with an insinuation of subservience. I prefer to see the interdependence of my farm within the global economy as a network of hard-won, high-value trust.

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