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Expert says farmers need to specialize in some way
By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
Indiana Correspondent

SHIPSHEWANA, Ind. — In order to keep up with changes in agriculture, farmers will need to focus more on what they do best, the head of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics said last week.

“They have to find their spot. It might be a better product, or it might be a better way of producing a product,” said Sally Thompson. “They have to find what they do better than everybody else.

“It might be that you’re particularly good at marketing things in a certain way. Or you’re better at certain technologies, such as organic farming. Whatever it is, you need to specialize in some way.”

Thompson shared these and other ideas at the recent Northeast Indiana Economic Development Summit in LaGrange County, Ind. The purpose of last month’s summit was to support regional activities and economic development planning in the northeast part of the state, said Deborah Abbott, assistant director, communications and outreach, for the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

“We want to help them understand the importance of agriculture on the local economy,” Abbott said. “We hope they will incorporate agriculture in the development process.”

Because agriculture is changing, many people outside the industry may not realize the skill required to be successful, she said. “Agriculture is very different from what it used to be,” Abbott said. “Some farms are getting bigger, while others are staying the same size, or getting smaller. Agriculture has many faces.

“Agriculture is becoming more high-tech and more scientific,” she said. “It’s very refined, and takes a high level of education.” Thompson agreed.

“Everything in the new agriculture is technology based,” she said. “There are new ways to manage, and new models of production and marketing.”

Northeast Indiana has a great deal of agricultural diversity, Thompson said.

“You see a lot of different types of farmers. There’s quite a bit of crop and livestock farming. There are a lot of different ways people are farming these days.”

Globalization of agriculture means farmers need to pay more attention to what’s happening across the world, and not just in their backyards, she said.

“They need to keep up to date on changes and what’s happening with global markets. They also need to have more information about the rest of the world. What do those customers want. You really need to think more like a business and focus on what your customer wants.”

While northeast Indiana has quite a bit of agriculture production, its economic health is also connected to nonagricultural industries, said Patrick M. Barkey, director of economic and policy studies at Ball State University.

Barkey also spoke at the recent northeast Indiana summit.

“The area is more closely aligned with auto and heavy manufacturing,” he said. “It’s tied very closely with Detroit and they are having problems there. This has thrown the area a curveball.” Change is necessary if the area is going to keep up, Barkey said.

“We’re going to be diversifying away from the higher paying manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Agriculture is an important part of the rural economy. What we’re looking to have is a diversified service economy.”

The area may struggle to hold on to a well-trained and educated workforce, he said. “If we don’t make some changes, we’ll continue to see a gap, slowly widening, between what they can make locally and what they can make nationally. People will find better opportunities outside the region. The challenge will be to keep our children nearby.”

The Midwest is the most underperforming part of the nation’s economy, he said. “Our train is running ahead but others are moving faster. It’s all relative.”

This farm news was published in the Nov. 8, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

11/8/2006