A Fantasy Island
September 10, 2008
“No man is an island, but some of us are pretty good peninsulas.”
— Solomon Short
Personally, I happen to love the above quote. Not only is it a very clever play on land mass definitions, I particularly like its underlying message — that no matter how hard an individual tries to stay isolated, he or she will eventually interact or be touched by someone in the great wide world.
Besides people, industries are not islands, either, though it may seem so at times. Take our own business, agriculture, for example. When you look at the downtrodden and negative news coming out of the general economy — housing foreclosures, massive layoffs, and skyrocketing gasoline prices, to name a few — agriculture seems like a pretty solid island. Many grower-customers are flush with cash from last year’s high commodity prices, equipment manufacturers are running their factories non-stop to keep with demand, and the ethanol wave keeps expanding. For the average ag retailer, this has translated into record revenues, as witnessed by last year’s CropLife 100 report, with total sales among this group approaching the $15 billion mark.
To appreciate how deeply this “positive island” mentality is running, consider this comment from one retailer I recently visited. When I asked this 11-year industry veteran about market conditions in his area, he beamed back with this response: “It couldn’t be better,” he said, a gleam in his eye. “Many of our customers talk about how much of a golden age agriculture was back in the 1970s. But from what I’ve seen, we are living in the definitive golden age of ag right now.”
This is a fine view of the state of ag, except for the fact that our industry is not an island of total prosperity. There are negatives out there — high fuel and transport prices, tight fertilizer supplies, and perhaps most devastating of all, the recent floods that all but wiped out 10% of the nation’s corn crop and caused more than $1 billion in crop losses overall. True, having more money makes these negatives easier to swallow, but they still hurt.
Veterans of this business will point out that these events are nothing new. Fuel and fertilizer issues are ever-present in this industry, and crop losses inevitably happen somewhere in this country year in and year out. I agree.
However, going back to our analogy, looking like an island of plenty in an ocean of despair can be dangerous. Several retailers I spoke with say that the incidents of trespassing and thefts at their outlets are on the rise. In particular, those facilities that store fuel have been frequent targets. In other cases, retailers are being forced to park all their vehicles indoors or empty their fuel tanks each night because of the threat from gas thieves.
Even worse than the petty thefts, ag is under attack from other sectors of the economy for appearing to be an island of wealth. Trade and special interest groups are trying to undermine money-making parts of our business such as ethanol. Despite this, many ag associations continue to act as islands, pushing member needs while attacking other groups within the ag community.
In this kind of environment, it’s important that the various groups within ag come together to protect all our interests. Going it alone with an “island mentality” will clearly not work.