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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Speaker: Next generation must use new ideas to save farms

Folks mill around the tractors Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Spokane Convention Center during the annual Spokane Ag Expo and Farm Forum. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Two young boys wearing matching cowboy hats climbed up the ladder into the Case/IH Steiger quadtrac that was as big as a barn. The farm boys sat in the plush seat and pretended to drive the 580-horsepower machine that costs about $600,000.

While older farmers streamed past the bright red machine at the Spokane Ag Expo and Farm Forum this week at the Spokane Convention Center, none were signing papers to drive the thing home.

“Overall, the attitude of the farmers has been good,” said Chris Flesher, territory sales manager for Case IH Agriculture. “The (crop) prices are not as strong as they would like. But these guys are long-term players.”

On Wednesday, Randy Fortenbery, an agriculture economist at Washington State University, said government data predicts stagnant wheat prices for the next 10 years, even as production costs continue to rise.

Asked if banks have been willing to loan to farmers given the grim forecast, Flesher said bankers “are always cautious. But they are long-term players, too. I don’t think (wheat prices) are scaring them.”

Next to the massive quadtrac, Flesher had parked a huge Steiger eight-wheel 420-horsepower tractor. While both pieces of equipment each cost more than many upscale homes, they represent the quandary that farmers face: paying for technology to allow them to farm more acres more efficiently.

“That’s the only way to succeed,” Flesher said. “You can’t farm by accident. You have to have a plan.”

That message was hammered home by Rob Sharkey, a daily Ag Expo speaker who hosts a popular podcast in which he interviews farmers. But he said farmers need to think of ways to succeed that have nothing to do with farming.

“Three years ago, I didn’t know what the word ‘podcast’ meant,” Sharkey said. “Basically, a lot of things in my life have come because of mistakes I’ve made. I was too dumb to realize that they were actually opening doors to incredible opportunities.”

Sharkey has farmed about 2,000 acres in Illinois since 1996. But he’s turned to deer outfitting, and now podcasts, to make money outside of farming.

“It really is the golden age in agriculture,” Sharkey said. “I think we need to embrace this for all it’s worth. We can do so many things that the generation before us have never had the opportunity to do.”

When Sharkey speaks of a ‘golden age,’ he’s not talking about crop prices.

“I’m going off more of the resources that we have,” he said. “I remember my dad would have these ideas … and they would never go anywhere. If they had Google, who knows what we would have figured out.”

Social media also has provided a platform for “farmers to finally have the watercooler to stand around and drink that gossip up,” he said.

That networking has made it possible for farmers to share their personal problems.

“There is a stigma in agriculture to mental health,” he said. “It is something very important that I speak about every time I get in front of a microphone. And every time I talk about it, heads tend to go down. It’s still very uncomfortable to talk about.”

When a farmer gets diagnosed with cancer, neighbors rally and help harvest his crop, Sharkey said.

“If you hear someone is having anxiety or depression, what do we do? Oh man, we look the other way,” he said. “It’s like a poison almost. But that has got to stop.”

Regarding the economic strains that contribute to that stress, Sharkey said the next generation of farmers must use technology as its savior, and he wasn’t talking about self-steering tractors that use computers and satellites to map fertilizer plans.

“When you look at the low margins … I suffered with them,” he said. “We are making a profit in Illinois, but it’s not much of one. It’s not fun. I would hate to have to live off my farming income alone.”

That’s why Sharkey turned to deer outfitting and podcasts.

“We’re gonna have to adapt,” he said. “When I was coming to the realization that I thought I couldn’t farm because I drove myself to the verge of bankruptcy, I had a hard time accepting help and other opportunities because in my mind I wouldn’t be able to call myself a farmer.”

Now, Sharkey sometimes shuts down his combine during harvest to handle other obligations that allow him to pursue his first love.

“Young guys and gals coming back to the farm look at things so much differently because they have all these resources,” he said. “If growing wheat is not going to make money, then you just have to start thinking about what is and look at different markets and different crops in a way that I never did.”