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By Staff | Aug 12, 2011

If you want to become rich, become a farmer! That was the recent title of a Time Magazine article. I always anticipate the accuracy of such articles in the general media with low expectations and high skepticism, but this one was a fairly good read besting my expectations.

The title should have been, “If You Want To Become Rich, Then Survive an Economic Depression, Take on Some Risk, Work Like Hell and Then See an Economic Recovery Reward You!”

Farmers today are doing well. Biofuel and globalization expanding trade is producing commodity market profitability. In the depths of the ag depression in 1985, no one believed that we could see the turnaround in wealth in the ag sector that has occurred.

It is historical. Farmers benefited by their tenacity. I remember many who gave up on agriculture 25 years ago.

The Time’s title was forward looking. That may be the biggest error. The wealth creation is past tense. Farmers who bought low have seen asset values appreciate. Buying into agriculture today may have a significantly different outcome.

The return on investment will be much less because capital and operation expenses are so much higher. It will be hard to top returns of those who bought land at $2,000 per acre in the 1980’s compared to buying in at $10,000/acre now. Long term investment in agriculture has always paid off, but it may be the next generation that benefits.

Getting rich in agriculture starting today will not be as simple as becoming a farmer. There is a fair chance that given the volatility in the long term trend and the propensity of story lines like these to occur near-trend corrections that unless you are already very rich, an investment in agriculture could just as likely break you.

Very few people are actually selling land at $10,000/acre as you don’t sell the factory unless you intend to go out of business. Farmers are buying 70 to 90 percent of the farmland being sold today and 50 to 60 percent of the purchases are cash.

Agriculture spreads its wealth around. Unemployment in Corn Belt states is significantly below the national average. Land grant universities can place every graduate they have as demand for professionals in the ag sector is where the jobs are. Yet, it is unusual for students from regions where the jobs aren’t, to understand or see the opportunity in the ag sector.

According to Time Magazine, the farm economy only accounts for 4 percent of U.S. gross national product, so is not the answer to the overall unemployment problem. But to date, there is a job opportunity for all classes and degrees of workers from those picking vegetables on farms to those working in science labs at biotechnology companies in agriculture.

Agriculture is growing everywhere and nearly all ag enterprises are making money. Those that have been around awhile have seen asset values rise a lot.

There was no gift here, they earned it. If you want to become rich, become a farmer and 30 years from now, you should have something to show for it. It is not a get rich quick proposition.

Young farmer programs will not be effective. The entry cost bars start ups so the wealth transfer will be generational. If Dad wasn’t a farmer, it will be virtually impossible for you to be. The skill set to be a farmer is virtually impossible to acquire anywhere but on the farm, yet farm operations are becoming so sophisticated that for success in the future they will need to acquire skill sets beyond the farm.

Ag universities are doing a good job with that, providing the skill sets that the world will depend upon to manage agricultural enterprises. Having the world depend on you is a good business to be in.

The world is awash in pessimism over the general economy right now. From my perspective, I know how this will turn out, because I have been through it before. So have most of you.

In the ag depression of the 1980’s, anyone who was not pessimistic was not paying attention. Farmers were looked down upon as incompetent businessmen. Asset values had fallen so much that any debt was toxic – 18 percent interest rates made leverage terminal. Funds treated commodities like leprosy. These were far worse conditions then those faced by the general economy today.

In 1985, if you would have told farmers that hogs would sell for $100, fat cattle for $125, corn for $7, soybeans for $14 and farms worth $10,000/acre … it would have been incomprehensible.

The pessimists in agriculture gave up in the 1980s and the tenacity of the survivors paid off. The economic recovery of the ag sector and the wealth creation adding to the equity of the commodity sector was unimaginable.

That is the lesson of pessimism and the future. Americans who are pessimists are wrong. This, too, will pass and American resilience, reinvention and exceptionalism will deliver a future for our children and grandchildren that will prove the pessimists wrong.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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