David Kohl

WILLMAR, Minn. — Even a brief conversation with Dr. David Kohl gets you around the world.  But then it should. Kohl has traveled almost 9 million miles throughout his professional career!  He has conducted more than 6,000 workshops and seminars for agricultural groups. A Feb. 27 workshop in Willmar, Minn. included about 150 students, farmers and farm business advisors in a special session at Ridgewater College.

Kohl is Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech University.  He received his M.S. and Ph. D. in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University.  For 25 years he was Professor of Agricultural Finance and Small Business Management in the Agricultural Economics Department of Virginia Tech.  Kohl also logged four years of varsity basketball competition at Cornell. He even occasionally lectures professional basketball players on business issues.  He is a business coach and part owner of Homestead Creamery, a value-added dairy business in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Kohl agreed to answer a few questions after his session in Willmar.

The Land: Will the ‘bigger and fewer’ trend continue indefinitely in agriculture? If yes, what is the end result?

Kohl: Yes, the competitive nature of farming and all agribusiness often boils down to survival of the fittest. So bigger and fewer is the inevitable trend — regardless the commodity.  But it’s also very bi-modal.  Yes, bigger farms, but we’re also seeing many smaller part-time farms being fairly resilient as well. Often these smaller part-time farms are how the younger people get started. They’ll have what we call “gigs” — meaning they’ll do this side business or that side business to make things work financially. But so obvious as I travel the upper Midwest I am seeing fewer yard lights. And that simply tells me consolidations keep on happening.

The Land: What will be the ownership of these bigger farms?

Kohl: The term is “hybrid.” They might be corporate farms, but it will likely still be family … cousins co-owning with cousins. Some will have outside-the-family membership too. Another model will be agri-entrepreneurs — often referred to as value-added operations. Plus, outside investors will continue buying up farm ground, or buying the assets with younger people than doing the hands-on of actually running the farm.  I think the key word today is hybrid model for 2020 to 2040.

The Land: Is this mega trend mostly unique with American agriculture?

Kohl: It’s now happening everywhere — especially the huge agricultural areas of Brazil, Argentina, Australia, much of Europe and very rapidly now in China. But the bigger change worldwide is changing consumer habits. Vegans will be exploding everywhere. More people want to know what’s inside their food. And what environment was it produced in. This new ‘mega force’ will be shaping agriculture for the next 20 years … and maybe longer. It’s being driven by the young generation: the millennials, the Gen Z or the unidentified Gen A’s. They will change how we produce food, fuel and fiber and its beginning to happen right now!

The Land: Will plant breeders and geneticists be involved?

Kohl: They have no choice — simply because we are rapidly becoming a consumer-driven food chain. That means geneticists will have to adopt or be without work. Yes, there will absolutely continue to be a place for GMO and non-GMO breeding efforts too — with farmers responding to what best works for them. If this doesn’t happen, we’re likely to have a starving world. What you’re going to see is trait attributes lining up with market place opportunities — both in the crop and livestock sector.

The Land: Is shrimp farming a new reality for American agriculture?

Kohl: Absolutely. Where we farm, how we farm, and what we produce will be totally different in the next 10 years. Yes, many Minnesota consumers will be saying, “My shrimp comes from Marshal, Minn. It’s not coming from Asia and these other areas of the world.” And it will provide new markets for Minnesota soybean meal too, because this new shrimp industry will spread to other Midwestern states. 

The Land: Is this part of what’s being called the urbanization of food production?

 Kohl: Yes, and this will be a significant trend very rapidly. Niche markets in many instances, but if that’s what consumers are wanting, then why not?

The Land: Let’s go politics. Is socialism working its way into the mainstream of American government whether we want it or not?

Kohl:  We feel this socialism movement. It’s becoming a little bit Europeanized. But capitalism is still alive and well. However, you can definitely sense this socialized movement happening in America — especially in the urban areas.

The Land: So relate to our current President.  Is his persona a driving force behind this trend?

Kohl: I’m often asked to give the positives and negatives of the Trump Administration. It’s quite obvious he is business-oriented. That major change in the federal tax code being a prime example. Also, he’s cutting regulations within government agencies. Important to remember he was a real estate investor. Yes, he has experienced a few bankruptcies. However, his reputation is disconcerting to other countries. And trust, once violated, negates that relationship. His primary negative, without getting too political, so much relates to his social messages via Twitter.

The Land: What will be end results of ‘tit for tat’ conversations regarding trade with China?

Kohl: I think we’ll see incremental steps both in trade wars with China and demilitarization of North Korea. Likely these will be temporary measures with further challenges and rewards to follow.

The Land: This wrap up question … Will China soon control cyber security in space and we won’t even know it’s happening?

Kohl: Yes, that potentially is the biggest threat to America and the free world. The more we move our high tech capabilities into other parts of the world, the more vulnerable we become.  And think what could happen if China took control? They could tremendously affect agriculture around the world. If they took out a nation’s electrical system, total chaos suddenly happens.  Could that happen? I don’t know when, but the reality is there. It’s frightening and is already keeping scientists and technicians on edge around the world.

You and I have lived through five or six major disturbances in our lifetimes. Today’s younger generation — many of them in this seminar here today — will experience two or three major disruptions … and one of them will relate to technology.

The Land: You are still vigorous, high energy, and positive about U.S. agriculture and America.  What keeps you going?

Kohl: The faces of American agriculture, regardless of age, are always uplifting. Tough times? Sure. But American farmers are respected as champions around the world. My touches with small town America and American farmers are the highlights of my life. I still work out every day as schedules permit. And I encourage farmers to work out also. It just simply pumps some energy into you. The other thing for me is a couple hours reading each day. No, I’m not a vegan.  Everybody choose their preference, I say.

The Land: At the start of today, you mentioned your dairy stores. Changes in this business too?

Kohl: We have 22 store fronts. Logistics is key to controlling costs in this ice cream business.  We would like to expand into more stores. Our flavored ice creams are big items. Also, manufactured products are now popular in the dairy industry, so we’re branding our products and that too helps. Consumers are particular and have every right to be. Develop a brand name with a good reputation and customers become our best advertisers. They say, “When you buy ice cream, be sure you find that Homestead Creamery brand.” Also, people enjoy our flavored milk — particularly when it’s offered in a glass bottle. Whole milk is coming back too. With consumers it’s a health thing.