I recently attended the funeral of an Oklahoma relative, a man who valued education, was a long-time teacher, and was loved by his family and community (700 attended the funeral). When Bill was a child he went with his father to see a WPA soil conservation project on some nearby farmland. 30 men with shovels were toiling away and one man, without a shovel, seemingly did nothing. “Dad, why doesn’t that guy have a shovel?”, Bill asked. His dad answered, “Because he has a college degree.” That was the moment that Bill knew he wanted a college degree, too. And he got one at Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M) and then used his Agricultural Education degree to get teaching jobs that gave him significant financial leverage to pursue the production agriculture operations that he loved.
Fast forward to 2017. After the funeral, Bill’s son is showing me around his own ag operation, which he has built into a business capable of sustaining his lifestyle without the need for any additional income from sideline occupations. He stops to show me a track-hoe that he recently acquired, a behemoth of a dirt moving machine that he bought in an online auction. And, incredibly, he bought it for $9,000 (in a state of disrepair), then put another $3,000 and his own mechanical know-how into it, turning it into a machine that can easily outwork a thousand men with shovels. Ken has no college degree, no certifications, and no “badges.” What he does have is the experience he gained working as a John Deere mechanic when he was younger and the technology behind the invention of agricultural machinery, plus the technology to source that machinery efficiently. For Ken, technology and situational experience trumped a college degree. And while this is only one story, I see it replicated across the production agriculture spectrum (also admittedly small).
I will also add that Ken doesn’t think in these terms, it is my interpretation that I am presenting. He gives primary credit for his success to the support received from his family network, who all live nearby. In my view, that constitutes an additional factor that is rarely as significant for those who are engaged in the more traditional model of getting their children a college degree and then expecting them to move away from the family to wherever the most attractive job prospect arises. But in any case, the world has changed – in Bill’s day a college degree was a virtual guarantee for improving your station in life. Today, maybe not.