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Wild cards

The Drought and Farmer Viewpoints

It’s been almost two decades since I first worked with a bunch of smart farmers who lead their state associations for the corn and soybean commodities. I’ve learned their business, watched them navigate a series of farm legislations, try to wean themselves away from government subsidies, and then prosper as prices came up dramatically over the past five years.

This year I returned to the same gathering for a fresh class of state association leaders. I didn’t know quite what to expect in a severe, brutal drought. I talked with some producers who were not going to harvest much of a crop. A very few lucky farmers located further north in the country or in the relatively moist East are going to do extremely well. But even the unlucky were optimistic as one can only be when you put almost everything in your business on the line every year and throw yourself on the mercy of nature.

If you want to see an example of resilience listen to these men and women as they talk about their ground, the crops, and their plans for the future. Certainly crop insurance plays into the situation. But they firm their jaws, speak frankly about the risks, and when asked about another drought “event” (that’s the term they use) they become gravely contemplative.
“That would take us back to zero,” one farmer told me. Another said, “We could deal with that but we’re probably going to sit back and see how the winter reestablishes our moisture before we even decide to plant next year.” The implications are serious for food supplies, energy prices, global trade.

If the breadbasket of America was to see anything similar to the conditions that have ravaged Texas for almost a decade we might look at food security suddenly becoming a strategic concern. The executive branch might need to step into the farm situation instead of allowing Congress to continue to argue over food stamps for the poor instead of providing a safety net for the people who feed the country.

The Wild Card Weeks

Wild Cards are lower probability, high impact events. We’ve not seen a few weeks like the last three for some time. I’m not a believer in the adage of “threes” when it comes to these events but there are lessons and implications for the three we’ve just seen.
A volcano erupts and ash plus extreme caution by air travel regulators paralyzes a system we take for granted. Millions are stranded. Millions, by any currency measure, are lost. Alternative transportation comes into short-term vogue and overloads. Normalcy returns and we forget. But that volcano is still smoking and just because it’s not page 1 news we relax.
An oil platform explodes and lives are lost. Initial concerns about leaks are downplayed by company executives. Days pass and a slick surfaces. There’s action but no results. Now we’re staring into one of the great environmental disasters of our generation.
Initial reports of an over-reliance on a “blowout preventer” will be examined in hearings and investigations for the next 3-4 years. Recriminations from environmentalists take on stronger weight. A decision to open more offshore drilling could not have been worse timed. We realize that we’re totally unprepared for the scale of the problem, contingencies for stopping the gusher of oil on the bottom, and we’re unenlightened or purposefully ignorant about the risks of the technology.
A car bomb fails to detonate in New York’s Times Square. If it had a fireball would have killed dozens, perhaps more. Vehicles nearby would have burned and exploded. The ensuing panic would have injured hundreds. Midtown Manhattan would have emptied as reports of the notifying phone call leaked out. The caller said it was only a diversion for a larger device. Transportation would have slammed to a standstill. Offices remained empty for Monday morning. Absenteeism spiked. Broadway theaters cancelled performances. And the world’s biggest financial center would have stopped for days. The economic after-effect would have climbed into the hundreds of millions for a devices that cost only a few hundred dollars.
When the alleged bomber is arrested within 53 hours we relax. Investigations of the origin, connection to terrorist groups, evaluation of police response will come. There will be criticism of no-fly lists, airport security, even Craigslist. But when the crisis is over our thinking returns to the mundane.
Therein lies the problem. Extraordinary events like these should prompt contingency thinking and action. They should trigger better preparation, encouragement of public involvement, and planning for the next inevitable event. Too often we don’t look at the next event, only the last event.
I’m hoping the wild-cards of the past few weeks result in serious contemplation and preparation for:
  • Disruptions of air travel for substantial periods of time on the part of industry and government.
  • Development of even better alternatives to face-to-face communication to back up or reduce long distance travel.
  • Better technology and layered backup systems for the next generation of deepwater drilling like that necessary for tapping the even deeper oilfields off the coast of Brazil.
  • An acceleration of alternative energy sources and, most importantly, conservation.
  • A renewed recognition that many man-made systems have Faustian consequences that should be contemplated before adoption, not after.
  • Higher levels of vigilance among all peoples in all places for those that would indiscriminately destroy life.
  • Smooth transitions to pre-thought Plans B, C, D, and Z when the worst happens.