So you want to be a farmer...

Thanks to a commodity boom and advanced computer technology, farming is a pretty big business these days -- for some.

Tess Vigeland: Yesterday we talked to farmer Ace Billups in Hill City, Kansas. The searing heatwave across large swaths of the U.S. is killing his crops. One question we asked him was whether events like this ever make him re-think his chosen profession.

Ace Billups: If this here would have hit this bad 20-30 years ago, it might have took you out in one year. But it's going to take a lot more than that to get rid of us. But some younger kid, I mean it's pretty depressing.

But even for younger farmers, it turns out this may be a great time to be working the land. We're joined now by someone who kind of straddles both the rural and the urban world. Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thompson Reuters digital, and her father just happens to operate a big farm in Alberta, Canada. Welcome.

Chrystia Freeland: Thank you.

Vigeland: Now you write about this in the current Atlantic magazine and your family had been farmers going all the way back to, what, the 1910s?

Freeland: Yes, my dad still farms where my great-grandfather's homestead was.

Vigeland: It seems like it would be really hard to be a farmer nowadays, probably always. But your article reads the opposite. In fact, you quote someone from the Federal Reserve saying farmers are flush with cash. Why is that?

Freeland: It's really two reasons. One is we are in the middle, maybe really the beginning, of a global commodity boom. The rise of the emerging markets, the fact that hundreds of millions of people in China and India are getting richer means there's a lot more demand for food. The other thing is the technology revolution, the efficiency revolution, that we are all very familiar with when it comes to manufacturing, that has happened on farms too.

Vigeland: Yeah, in fact you mention that before World War II, it took 100 man hours to produce 100 bushels of corn and now it takes two hours. Can you give us some examples of what that technology is?

Freeland: When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, I used to work on my dad's farm. It was how I spent my summers and I really enjoyed it. I could get a great tan that way. And I said to my dad this spring that maybe I'd like to take a week off and come work on a farm again. And he very politely and gently said that probably that's not a good idea because I'm not qualified to drive the equipment anymore. Really, it's not mechanized, but computerized. So your combine is connected to your seed drill. And this works over years, but your seed drill knows what you harvested the previous year and that influences how much you seed, how much fertilizer you put in different parts of the field. So less of your seed, less of your fertilizer is wasted. And that's really important because agricultural inputs are expensive.

Vigeland: You mention in the piece that your dad is, shall we say, not a struggling, poor farmer. And the gentleman from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City certainly backs that up. But certainly there must be a lot of struggling farmers?

Freeland: There's a real win-or-take-all process going on. What has happened is if you are able to farm at scale -- and this is a crucial point. My dad can run a farm successfully because he's been at it for a long time, because he farmed with my grandfather, he farmed with his own grandfather, and so he owns a lot of land. And that is what makes it economically effective. If you or I wanted to start our own farm right now without that capital in place, we wouldn't be able to do it. And if you're someone who, say, owned 200-300-400 acres and that's it, you're going to have a very, very hard time surviving. And probably you'll end up selling to one of the bigger farmers.

Vigeland: You speak very fondly of your memories of being on the farm, any chance you would give up the big-city life someday and go back?

Freeland: What I say to my dad is I would just like him to hang on long enough for me to get to be sufficiently successful that I can spend three or four months on the farm and do my day job in journalism the rest of the year. We're negotiating.

Vigeland: Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thompson Reuters digital and her article about today's modern farming is in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. Thanks for being with us.

Freeland: Pleasure.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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