John Phipps

John Phipps talks to farmers and other business people at the McLean County Ag Awareness Breakfast in Normal.

BLOOMINGTON, lll. — When John Phipps talks to other farmers, he likes to dispel some preconceived notions, often with a combination of statistics he has ferreted out and humor.

He used both at the McLean County Chamber of Commerce Ag Awareness Breakfast in Bloomington March 20.

Successful farmers can have off-the-farm jobs, said Phipps, an Edgar County, Illinois, farmer, engineer and communicator. Farmers with two streams of income are more resilient, he said.

“It’s not a failure of a farmer to find some kind of off-farm income. A farmer should explore all assets available to the family farm,” he said.

Phipps knows about off-farm jobs. He has sold computers and software, worked in a mortgage banking operation and taught at a community college. He was also the host of U.S. Farm Report, America’s longest-running farm television show.

Today, farmers often have business, engineering or accounting degrees, and using them in off-farm jobs can help the family and the community, he said. Many find ways to adjust their off-farm careers to the high-demand times of the year in agriculture.

Putting it in perspective

Some may be surprised to know that agriculture is not Illinois’ largest industry, he said. It doesn’t contribute more than about 1 percent to the state’s economy, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Based on the visual driving through McLean County, one would think that Illinois is all about farms, he said. But in 2016, for example, the No. 1 industry in the county was insurance, Phipps said.

“You don’t want State Farm to move out,” he said.

This means that agriculture can have a tough year and the rest of the county may not, he added.

In 2013, likely the single best year for ag in the history of the U.S., agriculture produced a small part of the gross national product, he said. It’s important for farmers to have such information as part of their worldview, he said.

While farmers might believe they are often under­appreciated, it can be dangerous for farmers to have an inflated view of their impact, Phipps said.

Family first

However, he did note the power of the family farm. It is difficult to get into farming without a family connection. Farmers, by nature, will rent or sell their land for less to their children to help them get started in the business. Phipps did it himself when his son, Aaron, transitioned into the business, he said.

“Mega farms come and go, but family farmers work because they are persistent. Families have a way of controlling their own destinies,” he said — up to a point. “You can’t pick your own parents or study the plat book before you start dating.”

Phipps said as a commentator, writer and speaker, he has made a living joking about agriculture. But he said there is so much “snark and ridicule” on social media and in the public today.

He encourages a neighborly approach. He said before his family decided to use dicamba on their soybeans, he talked to neighbors. In advance, he told them if they found any damage to let him know, and he would compensate them.

“Take accountability,” he said. No one has come asking for a payment for damage.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.