It’s one of the great ironies of our time that we purportedly live in “the information age,” an age characterized by almost-universal access to computers, where people can transfer information freely and have instant access to knowledge that would have been difficult or impossible to find just a few years ago.
What makes this such a great irony is that even with all this information, we probably know less than ever before, or at the very least, we know less that is accurate. We could speculate all day over the reasons for this phenomenon.
A good argument is that with so many sources of information, it has become more difficult to tell the reputable ones from the less-reliable ones. Gone are the days when someone who wanted to disseminate information had to invest in a printer, or a television or radio station. Here in the digital world, anyone with a computer can publish, and anyone with a cell phone can “tweet.” While the technology has been miraculous, it has muddied the waters somewhat when it comes to knowing what to believe. And it’s not so much a case of truth versus untruth, but rather it’s a matter of presenting only limited information that ultimately causes one to reach the wrong conclusion.
This came to mind recently when I was dining in a restaurant located in a major Southern city and overheard a conversation between two young men. Judging from their appearance, they were professionals who probably made their living in an industry like banking or investing. Anyway, the gist of their lunchtime chatter was that they should have been farmers instead. Considering current commodity prices, one of them said, their only worry would be how to invest all of the cash that supposedly was rolling in by the truckload.
Bless ‘em. They don’t know any better.
They’ve undoubtedly been reading, listening to, or watching some form of the “popular” press, the same media that, in the past, paid scant attention to commodity prices when they were at their lowest point. But suddenly, commodity prices are the focus of their attention, especially since prices are at record-highs, and especially since the farm bill is becoming a favorite target of those wishing to reduce the budget deficit.
Unfortunately, only part of the story is being reported, the part that tells about how worldwide demand and current weather problems are pushing cotton, corn, wheat and soybean prices to levels that could not have been imagined only a few short months ago. Even peanut prices are being talked about, thanks to the mythical “National Posted Price.”
This is all some people know about the current state of farming, including the two young men I mentioned earlier.
But I have to say that during my travels in recent months, I haven’t seen any truckloads of cash bouncing down the rural roads of Alabama, Georgia or Florida. I have seen some incredibly skippy crop stands, thanks in large part to one of the driest planting seasons on record. I’ve seen a look of weariness in the eyes of farmers who have had little to no sleep because they’ve had to run irrigation systems around-the-clock.
I’ve also seen a look of disappointment in the faces of many farmers because in the past, they’ve been advised not to be greedy, and to go ahead and contract their crops for a price that’ll cover their costs and hopefully leave a small profit. They’ve followed this time-honored advice, only to watch prices skyrocket along with the costs of many inputs.
In addition, I’ve seen a look of puzzlement in the eyes of producers who wonder why the federal government is posting a price of nearly $950 per ton for peanuts, yet no one is offering this price. And even further, how can the government of the United States keep secret the formula for reaching such a price?
Even in the information age, when the most insignificant piece of data is a mere keystroke away, the majority of the U.S. population hasn’t the faintest idea how farmers are making their living. They may know every detail of a sensational murder trial in Florida, but all they know of farming is that prices are high, which means that someone must be getting rich.
What they don’t know about farming is a lot.