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Independent Operators? Not For Much Longer

Farmers and ranchers typically think of themselves as independent operators.

Des O’Rourke, director of Washington State University’s IMPACT center, thinks that self-image is not only passe, but harmful.

Fortunately, new image is emerging as producers band together to survive increasingly difficult economic times. In a way, it stems from such old models as producers forming irrigation districts or grower cooperatives, such as TreeTop, to do what single growers cannot do for themselves.

The new model, however, carries this mechanism to an even more local level where it involves relatively small numbers of producers.

Phill Fossum, who operates 400 acres of orchards in the Gleed area northwest of Yakima, is numbered among the new breed. In 1994 he and 35 neighbors teamed up with five area warehouses to underwrite the installation of a weather station to provide comprehensive, real-time data from Washington State University’s Public Agriculture Weather System — PAWS for short.

During the growing season Fossum frequently connects his computer to the Internet, signs on to a Washington State University home page on the World Wide Web, downloads real-time weather data to his computer, puts it in an Excel spread sheet and analyzes it to help him make decisions about frost protection and insect and disease management.

O’Rourke says producers must increasingly work together to survive in today’s business environment. “Producers need to work with neighbors, extension agents, fieldmen, marketers and others on a consistent basis,” he says.

In a recent essay on workshops and conferences, O’Rourke lamented that many producers return home from these forums, enthused with new ideas, but don’t apply them.

“It is clear that many of the most pressing problems faced by growers can only be dealt with by groups of growers acting together,” O’Rourke says.

He cites advances in pest control and potato blight prevention as examples of the need for group action. The success of many of these approaches depends on all producers within a geographic district uniting to apply technologies. In other cases, not everyone in an area has to cooperate, but groups of cooperators can benefit by acting together.

“The greater need for group efforts creates a whole new challenge for growers, packers, processors and marketers in managing their time and that of their employees,” O’Rourke says.

“They need to clearly define for their business which essential activities are under their independent control and which activities they need to work with other individuals and groups whom they cannot control.”

O’Rourke says this may require operators to reallocate their own time, as well as that of their employees.

“For many growers, this reallocation of time will be difficult both philosophically and practically,” O’Rourke says. “One of the attractions of the farmer’s life is the ability to be one’s own boss. There is a strong belief that hard work will be rewarded and there is a great reluctance to depend on others for success.”

O’Rourke also notes that it’s a lot easier to control one’s self, or a few employees, than to get a group of farmers to work together on a common cause. That’s especially true if farmers continue to think of themselves as independent operators.

But, O’Rourke sees no alternative. “Even the largest farmers are being forced to work collectively to meet new market demands, cope with new government requirements and deal with new technologies.”

It may be of little consolation to producers who have invested heavily into the “lonesome cowboy” image, but the times are changing. Farmers and ranchers who want to remain in business well into the new century will have to change with the times, as their fathers and grandfathers did, or find another way of life.

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