Volume 12, Number 14                                                    November 22, 2009

The Farmer

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Laying the Groundwork for Muhammad Farms

By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad

As I write, it has been raining for two days and the ground is too wet for me to continue with the farm work at hand. Yesterday, I used this “down time” to finish work on our 2010 Muhammad Farms Calendar, so today I can continue working on this series of articles on farm management.

I give you this background of how I am using my time to give you a glimpse at what it will be like to manage a farm. Nature and the condition of your farm work determine how a farmer must allocate his time. Submission to the laws of nature and the time are essential to farm survival. You may have noticed that I produce few articles on my website, www.Muhammadfarms.com, between summer and fall. I usually write more articles in the winter because this is when I have the most down time at the farm. During the major growing and harvesting periods of the year, not only is my body tied up in doing farm work, but after the physical work stops, my mind continues to problem solve and plan for the coming day and weeks. Farmers must think in terms of immediate tasks to do tomorrow, intermediate plans for the remainder of the week and how all of this fits into the long term plans and goals of the farm. A farm manager must anticipate possible problems and be ready to immediately solve and handle emergencies.

Before we get started in teaching farm management, as future farmers you should be thinking about acquiring certain skills you will need that can not be taught in articles or even in a book. You must know how to do at least minor repairs on equipment. So right now do as much repairs on anything in your environment as possible and take some classes or workshops on welding, using a torch, engine repair, electrical repair (A.C. and D.C), plumbing and carpentry. When something breaks at home, try to fix it yourself or at least pay close attention to the repair person. When you get on your farm, not only will you be isolated from many conveniences, you also will not be able to afford to pay someone every time some farm equipment breaks or something stops working at your house. They may not even do service calls that far from the nearest city.

Think of a farmer as “Superman” and the rest of the world as “kryptonite”. There is something called the “parity ratio”, that I will expand upon in the future, which at its present level indicates that every time a farmer has to buy some goods or service from someone else he loses. He loses because when he goes to the market to sell his product he does not get a price that reflects the time, effort, capital and risk that he must employ to produce that commodity. In other words the exchange rate between what the farmer offers the market and what he has to pay for inputs for production is not fair. The farmer has lost ground in this struggle since 1910. Therefore, a farmer must be as self-sufficient as possible to survive. If not, he becomes a slave to the urban world. So, start now and learn all you can about repairing everything you can.

Later we will discuss different aspects of farm management and what we have found about how good managers think and operate. However, one thing that all farmers try to do is repair their own equipment. If you ever come to visit us here in Southwest Georgia, I would like to take you over to see a few farmers’ equipment repair facilities. I would wager that you have never seen so much sophisticated repair equipment unless you visited an auto or truck dealer repair shop or tool and die shop. Some of these farmers actually build or at least greatly modify their own equipment. We at Muhammad Farms have a small workshop and limited equipment. However, we like to say that if you give me some duck tape, wood and rope I can make up, repair or modify just about anything (smile). Necessity and a limited budget are the mothers of invention.

The farm manager not only manages but farms as well. There is a difference. Gardening can help you understand the basic nature of the production process; however you need to work on a commercial farm to learn how to produce on a commercial basis. You need to know how to drive a tractor. You need to know how to use different farm equipment to do different tasks. You need to know how the earth responds to the use of this equipment. You need to know how the weather affects the utilization of such equipment. You must learn how the time and season dictate the activities of a farm operation.

You also need to understand that not all farms are the same. Most farms are highly specialized. The USDA has classified farms under broad categories of cash grain, field crop, vegetable and melon, fruit and tree nut, nursery and greenhouse, dairy, poultry and egg, and cattle/hog/sheep. So your first decision is to determine what type of farm are you going to set up?

A farm is more than just some land. It is a system which includes the infrastructure, buildings and equipment necessary to carry on the operations done on that land. When we purchased our 1600 acre “farm” in Georgia, there was no equipment or repair shop, just open land filled with large weeds. We decided to set up a farming operation growing cash grains and vegetable/melons.

Interaction Between Decision Making and Goals

So why did we decide to set up Muhammad Farms as a cash grain/vegetable/melon farm? First of all the manager has to make decisions based on both environment, availability of resources and underlying goals and objectives of the family. In this case my family is the Nation of Islam.

The manager has to decide on what weights to give different outcomes based on his value/goal system which may change over time. The setting of goals and the evaluation of values is another function that the manager is burdened with.

Goals are decisions that act as guide posts for the making of other nested decisions or represent constraints on what alternatives are looked at when making decisions. As such, no one or set of goals can be held to be neither constant over any wide range of managers nor constant over time with the same manager. Such goals can include; 1) make more annual profits, 2) maintain or increase family living, 3) avoid years of low profits or losses, 4) avoid being forced out of business. The ranking of these goals may vary over manager characteristics of age and tenure of the operator, educational attainment, number of dependents, assets, net worth, debt-asset ratio, off-farm income, total land and cropland in the operation, total acres owned, and the proportions of land and cropland owned.

The profit maximizing motive which is hypothesized to be the prime mover behind economic decision-making, may not be the key factor for the farm. To understand business behavior one must look at the business’s overall objectives which more than not is survival, not short-term profit maximization. Profits are essential for survival but not to the sacrifice of other goals such as perpetuity, harmonious relationship within the economy and society in which it must function, the ability to supply an economic good or service, and being a change agent within that society.

With this theoretical background let us delve into how goals played an essential role in our decision to set up Muhammad Farms as we did.

First of all, peanuts, wheat, cotton, soybeans and field corn are the major commodities grown in Terrell County. A few counties over from us is the largest watermelon market in the country, Cordele, Ga, but there were no watermelon farmers in Terrell County when we started farming in 1995. Therefore, if making a profit was the primary goal of Muhammad Farms, these should probably be the crops that we should grow. However, my assumption was that we were interested in feeding our people. Also I believed that the members of the Nation of Islam wanted products from our farm. I soon learned that this second assumption was problematic.

This was 1995 and we were gearing up for the historic Million Man March set for October 16th of that year. We needed to grow crops that the people in our cities could see and feel. If we grew only peanuts, cotton, soybeans and field corn the people, no one in the Nation of Islam or the cities in which our Mosques and study groups were located would see the products from our farm in Georgia. This is because these cash crops would have been sold to local grain elevators and buying stations to be mixed with crops from other farmers in Terrell County to continue through the established agribusiness system set up to handle those commodities. And since we did not and still do not have processing facilities to turn cotton into cloth and cloth into clothes, nor do we have processing facilities to turn corn into corn flakes or corn oil, we could not get these commodities directly to our end consumers in the cities.

On the other hand if we grew fresh vegetables, we could ship them directly to our cities in the raw stage for consumption. This would accomplish a number of goals. I felt that if our black women could see that we in the Nation of Islam could possibly feed their babies then they may be more inclined to encourage their men to attend the Million Man March. This is based on my theory that women are more concerned about their babies than they are about their men. And since it was and still is the white man that the black women depends on to get her food needed for her babies, then it is the white man and not the black man that she respects. She may love her black husband, but she respects and admires her white benefactor. Although she may want her black man to be a “man”, she can not afford for him to upset her benefactor while he can not produce the security blanket that her white benefactor provides.

Another reason for producing vegetables that could be seen and tasted in the cities is that we need to purchase more farm land. The monies needed for those purchases must come from the people, of which the majority live in the cities. There is a saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” Our farm is located two and one half hours south of Atlanta, far away from our major concentrations of black people. Although everyone in the Nation was excited about the purchase of our 1600 acres of land, that excitement would fade unless they could be constantly reminded of our existence and efforts. So, growing vegetables and shipping them to the cities was part of our public relations or marketing campaign to continue and even increase our people’s support for the Three Year Economic Savings Program, which is the financial engine for our continued growth in agricultural economic development and nation building.

Add to this the fact that we did not have any equipment when we got here and a limited budget to purchase such. Therefore this again eliminated cotton production. In the Nation of Islam we don’t eat peanuts or soybeans, so we excluded those crops. However, this was a mistake and we now grow at least 200 acres of peanuts per year. We will explain later.

Vegetable production is more labor intensive; while peanut, corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat are more capital intensive. We could hire local hand labor for fighting weeds in vegetables and for picking them in the summer. On the other hand we did not have the money to purchase the large tractors, planters, cultivation equipment or harvest equipment necessary for those other cash crops.

Therefore we got an 85 horsepower John Deere tractor and some used plowing, planting and cultivating equipment with which we could grow vegetables. In fact we did not even get this tractor until the middle of April. Therefore, I went out and hired some black farmers along with their tractors and harrows to get us started in March of 1995.

That first summer we had a tremendous crop of yellow and zucchini squash, sweet corn and watermelons. We shipped these products in the Final Call trucks to many of our large cities in the South, East and Midwest. The people were excited to see both their newly acquired trucks and our delicious and beautiful produce from their farm in Georgia. However, the honeymoon did not last long. By the summer of 1996 we were hearing complaints that we were sending too much fresh produce at one time and the people were not prepared to handle bushels of corn, squash, okra and the like. We found out the hard way that our people were not canning, freezing or even cooking meals from scratch. So now we had to start an educational program, so we set up in 1999 to reach out and teach our people what was going on at the farm and in the food system. We had to show them examples of the dangers of what Minister Farrakhan has labeled, the “merchants of death”. We had to make it clear that this system was killing us through the food and therefore we needed to get our stomachs out of the enemy’s kitchen and consume our own produce from our own farm.

In terms of a farm management lesson, we assumed that our intended market had a certain set of goals, so we thought that we were growing for that market. When we learned that they did not act upon the principles of “How to Eat to Live”, we had a decision to make. We could forget about that potential market and concentrate on making a profit for the farm and thereby follow the farming systems established in Terrell County, i.e. cotton, peanuts, corn, soybeans and wheat. We could try and educate them to change their behavior. We could set up processing plants to turn our raw products into processed goods that our people were accustomed to. We could continue to grow vegetables but sell them to food brokers. We decided to do a combination of growing some row crops such as wheat, corn and even cotton; educating our potential customers in the cities on the value of holistically grown produce; sell some of our excess vegetable production to local food brokers and set up food buying clubs in the cities to be a ready market for our produce.

We even looked into setting up a dairy, but found that the cost of doing so was prohibitive at the time. On top of this, when you produce milk you either have to process it and ship it yourself or sell it to local milk bottlers for them to distribute under their labels. There is a continued debate on the level of pasteurization that is most beneficial and the legal aspects of shipping non-pasteurized milk across state lines. Muhammad Farms can not afford to get into a legal battle with the state or federal authorities and jeopardize the survival of the overall farm on the milk issue. We probably will have to set up a separate corporation to handle dairying so as not to put the land that we own at risk to lawsuits or government intervention. All of these factors must be taken into account when making decisions on what enterprises to pursue in your farming operations.