I used to get upset when I read articles like this one from sober university professors about how I should analyze risk in the cash rent market.
Farm Management Specialist Gary Schnitkey at the University of Illinois has completed a thorough study of how to quantify those market risks, to guide farmers and landowners toward the type of lease that will be fair to both owner and operator and allow both sides to share in the premium prices offered by the market. In his latest newsletter Schnitkey says today’s high commodity prices will be offset by higher production costs and lower government support payments. As a result, farmers will have to find a way to retain a larger share of the revenue stream to protect against the risks of the marketplace and the higher cash rent agreements that will have to be paid out. [More]Now I simply chuckle. Take a look at the spreadsheet. Note there are no entries for factors like:
- the farm is also your home
- Moody Farms is bidding on it
- you farm on 2 (or 3 or 4) sides of the property, making one larger efficient tract
- it represents 18% of your farm income
- without it you will have to leave farming
- you have farmed it for 40 years
- your mailbox sits on it
- you compete by blind sealed bid without negotiation
- your operating time frame is generations, not years
- landowners who don't know or care what is "fair"
The analysis is also constrained by the data source. FBFM data may not be representative of industrial ag, since very few large operations use the service and share their numbers. In short, economists could be pooling their ignorance.
In some sense, these types of models are therefore simply incomplete - dealing data that is easily accessible and manipulable. Truly useful economic analyses would find ways to quantify the above factors, and indeed that is where cutting edge economic work is going.
I have an idea that might help. Let's eliminate tenure and pay ag economists by the classroom hour or research paper. They would bid for their classes every 2-3 years against all comers, including foreign grad students willing to work for much less and competitors from other colleges.
Then let's see how much risk they accept as reasonable. While this seems caustic, what all these clever spreadsheets ignore is how our brain reacts to risks. Research indicates it is not simply controlled by our rational prefrontal cortex. In fact, we decide it with our emotions and justify it later. And unless the risk is actually real for you, it is unlikely you will understand how such decisions are really made - and more importantly, made to work.
Such analyses are not useless of course, but they only represent the first step in deciding. It has also been my experience that those who focus on the current numbers don't hang around long in the cash rent market. They may have been correct in economists' eyes, but they aren't farming.
Industrial agriculture is outgrowing many ag economics texts, I believe, for the same reason it is commanding the bulk of farm assets and outputs. The practitioners have devised ways to address factors like these and blow careful conventional thinkers out of the water.