December 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Perceptions of Large-Scale Cornbelt Farmers: Implications for Extension

Participants in an Extension workshop were surveyed with respect to their perceptions of factors influencing their farm business and their views of future management problems and opportunities over the next ten years. Changing market conditions, enterprise profitability, and family relationships were most expected to influence their businesses. Personnel, finance, and environmental issues were perceived as their most important management problems. Expanding the business, marketing opportunities, and lowering costs of production were their most significant management opportunities. These results suggest some, although not radical, changes are necessary in management education.

Wesley N. Musser
Department of Agricultural Economics and Resource Economics
University of Maryland
Internet address:

George F. Patrick
Department of Agricultural Economics
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
Internet address:

Gerald F. Ortmann
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Natal
Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Internet address:

D. Howard Doster
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Economics
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
Internet address:

Reduction or lack of increase in public funding is causing Extension systems in many states to consider program restructuring. Extension administrators and personnel are examining program content to ensure that critical needs are being met. Participation of those using Extension Services in this process is important to ensure that their interests are being considered. Representative individuals may serve on planning or advisory committees and informal methods can be used to solicit views of knowledgeable individuals. These methods are useful for obtaining subjective viewpoints; however, they can be misleading because they are not broadly based and may not consider perspectives of the larger potential audience.

This article reports the results of a survey of the farm management problems and opportunities of large-scale, cash-grain farmers in the mid-west who participated in an Extension workshop. These farmers are a current Extension audience who provide traditional political support for Extension, and their perceptions can be useful in planning future Extension programs.


Farmers who attended the three-day 1991 Top Farmer Crop Workshop at Purdue University were sent a questionnaire to complete before the workshop. This workshop has been held annually since 1968 and participants paid a $160 registration fee. A total of 80 useable questionnaires were received from 102 participants. Eight states were represented in the sample, with 48% coming from Indiana, 25% from Illinois, 14% from Ohio, and 6% from Iowa.

The questionnaire focused on a number of management topics, but this article focuses on three open-ended questions contained in the last part of the questionnaire.

  1. What factors might lead to a different direction for your farm operation in the next 10 years?

  2. As you look ahead over the next 10 years, what do you anticipate will be your most difficult management problems?

  3. As you look ahead over the next 10 years, what do you anticipate will be your most significant management opportunities?

Responses to these questions were classified and tabulated into the broad categories reported in this article. General results of the study are summarized in Ortmann, Patrick, Musser, and Doster (1992).

Overview of Respondents

The average farm operated by the respondents was 1,820 acres (691 acres owned)--more than four times the 433 acres operated by the average North Central farm (Hepp & Edwards, 1991). Individual and family ownership arrangements accounted for over 90% of the sample. Corn and soybeans accounted for 74% of gross farm sales. All had gross farm sales of over $100,000, with 35% exceeding $500,000 in 1990. In comparison, only about 30% of Indiana farms had gross farm sales exceeding $100,000 in 1990 (Barnard, McNamara & Falck, 1991). Respondents averaged 39.7 years of age, younger than the average 52 years of U.S. farmers (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1987). The mean 14.9 years of formal education was also higher than the educational level of the average farmer. Over 76% considered themselves above average in management skills. Most of the respondents were in the $250,000-$499,999 range of net worth, with 63% having a net worth of less than $500,000.

Future Farm Business Directions

Sixty-six farmers (82.5%) responded to the question on factors that might lead to a different direction for their farm operations in the next 10 years (Table 1). About 30% identified changing market conditions as the most important factor. Closely related to this factor was changing enterprise profitability and effects of technology leading to different enterprise mixes on the farm. Jointly, these two factors accounted for nearly 60% of responses. Changing family relationships (24%) and labor changes (18%), as well as changes in financial circumstances (14%) were also factors expected to significantly influence the direction of business. Adverse weather, government programs, and environmental issues were also seen as important by some farmers.

Table 1. Factors expected by respondents to lead to a
different direction of their farm operations in the
next 10 years (n = 66).
Factors Frequency Percentages*
1. Changing market demand/outlook 20 30.3
2. Changing enterprise
profitability, technology
(leading to diversification or
18 27.3
3. Changing family relationships
(children joining business,
retirement, partnerships)
16 24.2
4. Labor changes (availability,
specialization, dependability)
12 18.2
5. Changes in financial strength
(returns, capital availability)
9 15.6
6. Adverse weather 4 6.1
7. Government programs/regulations 4 6.1
8. Environmental issues 3 4.5
9. Other (business opportunities,
urban development, age/cost of
5 7.6
*Percentages add up to more than 100 because some
respondents gave more than one answer.

The three most important factors are all related to traditional Extension farm management programs. The greater perception of importance of markets probably reflects the joint effects of internationalization of agricultural commodity markets and declining support from federal commodity programs. Opportunities for increasing emphasis on Extension marketing programs are suggested to supplement the important production and financial emphasis of the past.

Future Farm Management Problems

Seventy-two farmers (90%) gave responses to the question on the most difficult management problems over the next 10 years (Table 2). Issues regarding the hiring, training, and retention of quality employees were of concern to nearly one-third of respondents. Problems regarding finance, including obtaining capital, reducing debt, maintaining profitability/cash flow, and where to invest were considered as important by 29% of the respondents. Environmental issues were prominent (22%), as were marketing problems (17%). Transfer of the business to children and partnership issues (14%) and land expansion (11%) were the most important other responses.

Table 2. Most difficult management problems over the next 10 years (n = 72).
Management Problems Frequency Percentages*
1. Labor (attracting, training,
keeping quality employees,
managing labor)
22 30.6
2. Finance (obtaining capital,
debt reduction, maintaining
profitability, positive cash flow,
taxes, investments, raising income)
21 29.2
3. Environmental issues
(environmental regulations,
groundwater, chemicals)
16 22.2
4. Marketing 12 16.7
5. Transfer of business (father
to children, retirement, multiple
management, partnerships)
10 13.9
6. Land (to rent or not, how
much to pay, expansion)
8 11.1
7. Government programs,
7 9.7
8. Low-cost production 5 6.9
9. Weather variability 4 5.6
10. Mastering reduced- or
no-till operations
4 5.6
11. Personal time 3 4.2
12. Other (public relations, positive attitude, children's
3 4.2
*Percentages add up to more than 100 because some
respondents gave more than one answer.

Some differences are apparent in these responses compared to those in Table 1. The prominence of labor-management problems validates its importance as a factor in changing farms as asked in question 1. In contrast, transfer of business was actually listed as a problem by fewer respondents than the number who saw it as changing their business. Marketing was also seen as less of a problem than as something that would change their business. However, finance and environmental issues were much larger as management problems than as factors changing the business.

Important Management Opportunities

Sixty-three farmers (79%) responded to the question about the most important management opportunities over the next 10 years (Table 3). Nearly one-half of the respondents indicated that expanding their business would be a vital management opportunity. About 29% mentioned lowering unit costs (increasing efficiency or productivity) by using new technologies and no-till operations. Taken together, these two broad management opportunities were mentioned by 76% of the respondents. Marketing opportunities were also regarded as important by 35% of the responding farmers, hiring and retaining quality labor by about 10%, and financial progress/management by 8%. In a sense, all the indicated management opportunities combine to make farmers more productive and competitive in the future farming environment.

Table 3. Most important management opportunities over the next 10 years (n = 63).
Management Opportunities Frequency Percentages*
1. Expansion of business (more
land rented and purchased)
30 47.6
2. Marketing opportunities
(options, futures, GATT, vertical
22 34.9
3. Lower costs of production (new
technologies, no-till)
18 28.6
4. Hire and retain quality labor 6 9.5
5. Financial progress/management 5 7.9
6. Learn new things (keep up with
changing trends, take advantage of
4 6.3
7. Bring children into operation, retirement 3 4.8
8. Other (environmentally sound
production, production analysis)
3 4.8
*Percentages add up to more than 100 because some
respondents gave more than one answer.

These responses exhibit some differences in relation to previous questions. Expansion of the business was given much greater importance than in previous questions. Lowering costs of production was related to a factor changing the business--new technology. In contrast, marketing was a significant response on all three questions. Finally, labor, finance, and the environment were much less prominent than in the previous questions.

Summary and Conclusions

While responses to the three questions had similarities, there were some differences. Overall, the responses indicated that traditional Extension programs for commercial farmers related to new technologies, marketing, and business expansion are consistent with these farmers' perceptions. Marketing was especially prominent in all responses. Finance, family/business relationships, and other traditional areas rated high as management problems. An issue of less traditional Extension emphasis is labor management. Environmental issues also seem to be of more importance and would provide opportunities for expanded Extension efforts. The relative importance of human relationships with family members and employees indicates that these large-scale farmers have much more complex personnel problems than are commonly perceived for the single family farming unit than in the past. An opportunity apparently exists for partnerships between Extension personnel in farm management and those in other program areas with expertise in human relationships.


Barnard, F. L., McNamara, K. T., & Falck, J. (1991). Results of the Indiana farm finance survey for 1991 (Purdue Agricultural Economics Report, November). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

Hepp, R. E., & Edwards, W. E. (1991). Small, medium and large farms in the north central region: A statistical profile. In the Proceedings of the North Central Extension Workshop. Columbia: University of Missouri, Extension Division.

Ortmann, G. F., Patrick, G. F., Musser, W. N., & Doster, D. H. (1992). Information sources, computer use, and risk management: Evidence from leading commercial cornbelt farmers (Purdue Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 688). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

United States Department of Commerce. (1987). 1987 Census of Agriculture. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census.

Author Notes

Journal Paper Number 14424, Office of Agricultural Programs, Purdue University. Professor Musser was formerly Professor of Agricultural Economics at The Pennsylvania State University, State College. Both Professors Musser and Ortmann were formerly visiting professors at Purdue University. Professor Ortmann gratefully acknowledges financial support from BP Southern Africa and the Centre for Science Development. Views of the authors do not necessarily reflect those of these organizations.