EDITOR'S NOTE: Based on the suggestions of some Farm Futures readers during our Summit, we're building a bookshelf of suggested reading which will keep growing. The books listed here are a great start if you're looking for ways to expand your knowledge on food, business, and politics. This farm-focused bookshelf will range from recently released titles, to relevant books that you might consider to add as a reference. Whether you buy the book to stack on the shelf, or build your Nook or Kindle database, they offer worthwhile reading. And there's always the local library, which has many of these on the shelf. If you have a suggestion for a book we should feature, drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies
By Tyler Cowen
Don't let the title fool you. This book goes to bat for mainstream agriculture in a big way. And, by an east-coast author nonetheless! Tyler Cowen is an economist who discusses the fallacy that paying more for food means the food is better. Taking that tact, he uses economics to point out all the things that are right with U.S. agriculture.
Why is this nation swept up in a fast food/frozen dinner craze? Why should some nations forget about working toward food security and move toward an open trade policy instead? When will the European Union wake up and embrace GMO foods? Cowen answers these questions clearly and concisely. And, he has the facts and figures to back it up. Consumers who opine for the days of yesteryear will be shocked to learn how often economic efficiency and environmentalism can coexist as part of the same modern food production engine.
The best part of Cowen's book – it's reaching an audience that's not necessarily favorable to mainstream ag. A quick Google search revealed reviews from USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR. Not every opinion in the book lines up with ag's agenda, but I'll take it. The bits on GMOs, feeding the world and our food supply efficiency are terrific. I'm sick of the green agenda run amok. It's time we got back to the time when efficiency was cool.
Reviewed by Josh Flint
Published by Dutton Adult; ISBN#: 978-0525952664
Borlaug: Right off the Farm 1914-1944
By Noel Vietmeyer
It's rare to find a book on Ag research that is also a gripping page turner, but that is exactly what you get with Borlaug, Right off the Farm 1914-1944, written by Noel Vietmeyer and published by Bracing Books. This is an insider's revealing look at the formative years of one Norman Borlaug, one of the great humanitarians of all time who died at age 95 in 2009. Originally published in 2004, this is the first of a trilogy of books focusing on how the young lad from Iowa rose up from his poor dirt farmer roots to redefine global food production in the second half of the 20th century, and eventually become one of just six people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Intertwined in the story of Borlaug's youth are tons of fascinating stories, such as the time the entire nation went on a diet when the 1916 wheat crop failed. "In the absence of flour, life for Americans suddenly became fragile,' writes Vietmeyer. "The upper crust had to accept the cornbread and macaroni they'd forever disdained." Or 1932, when farm prices fell so low the rural masses rose up and went on strike, banning shipments of food to cities across America. The book notes how the depression, dust bowl, and some good old fashioned luck led to a robust academic life and career as the groundbreaking research scientist who later saved billions of lives worldwide.
If you're curious like I am about Borlaug's fascinating career, you're not alone. As the New York Times wrote in 2007, two years before his death: "Could there be a man alive today who is virtually unknown to the vast majority of Americans yet is described by those who know his work and accomplishments as "the greatest human being who ever lived"? So it is for Dr. Norman Borlaug."
Fortunately we now have a vast wellspring from which to draw from. Vietmeyer, himself an Ag researcher, worked with Borlaug for 20 years and compiled dozens of interviews with the man himself as well as his colleagues. Now retired from the National Academy of Sciences, he made it his career to bring recognition to Borlaug. This is the first of three books detailing Borlaug's life adventures. Volume two, Wheat Whisperer 1944-1959, captures the many challenges he faced in getting his improved varieties planted on a massive scale. In volume three, Bread Winner 1960-1969,Vietmeyer tells readers how Borlaug proved the experts wrong as his groundbreaking plant breeding work begins to make a positive impact on the hungry mouths of the world. If you want a more streamlined look at Borlaug's life, try Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug. Here Vietmeyer draws on his trilogy to provide the essence of this agricultural scientist's amazing life story in a single fast-paced volume.
Can one man make a difference? These books prove, beyond a doubt, the answer is yes. If you ever find yourself in need of a little inspiration, pick up one of Vietmeyer's Borlaug books. You won't be disappointed.
Reviewed by Mike Wilson
Published by Bracing Books, 2011, ISBN #978-0578041254
Love 'em or Lose 'em: Getting Good People to Stay
By Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans
What's one thing nearly every farmer-manager tells us? Managing employees can be both frustrating and unrewarding. In fact, more than one grower has told us he'd rather do just about anything else, compared to finding, hiring, training and retaining employees. Yet, getting and keeping good people is the key to any business success, as the authors of Love 'em or Lose 'em rightly point out. And they show you just how to do that.
This is a guide book written for busy managers. You'll learn what it takes to prevent employee losses at critical times. You'll learn how to get good people to choose you to work for, and how to keep them happy, challenged and motivated. You'll get some easy-to-implement strategies to keep talented people engaged and on your team.
If you hire and manage employees, this is the kind of book you will want to read, re-read, highlight, and keep on your desk at all times. It can reduce that frustration level to zero if you follow its ideas.
Reviewed by Mike Wilson
Published by Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008, ISBN #978-1-57675-557-0
The One Minute Negotiator: Simple Steps to Reach Better Agreements
By Don Hutson and George Lucas
Farming is no longer a simple game. Large scale farm operations have a lot of capital at risk. They demand more sophisticated business skills, including the ability to negotiate better deals, whether it's employee salaries, land rents or seed corn.
In a snappy 136 pages,The One Minute Negotiator offers up some timely, simple ways to stop the stress of negotiations and feel confident that you will come away with positive results every time.
The ideas in this book work on both adversarial and cooperative discussions. You will learn about a three-step process that can be applied to nearly any situation. You will learn about the four key negotiating strategies and how to select the right strategy for the right situation.
As Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager says in this book's foreward: "One of the key messages from this book is that you can complete a negotiation without victimizing others - or becoming a victim - in the process…read this book and enjoy the ride to greater collaboration and success."
Reviewed by Mike Wilson
Published by Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010, ISBN #978-1-60509-586-8
The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers
By Keith McFarland
Every farmer who is thinking about the future of his or her business will find this an important read. And, if you liked Jim Collins' Good to Great, you will love Breakthrough.
Author McFarland takes an analytical look at a pool of more than 7,000 companies and examines the very best to explain the secrets of steady, profit-enhancing growth. Don't be put off by the 'company' examples - many of the nuggets of wisdom here make sense for agricultural production enterprises. McFarland takes a close look at the growth of a business from owner/operator, how to grow to the next level, and what that growth means to the family founders.
"One of the key challenges farmers are facing is how to reposition their operation from an owner-centric business to an entrepreneurial enterprise," says Purdue ag economist Mike Boehlje, who endorses McFarland's book for every growth-minded farmer. The book will help you "embrace family participation but not necessarily full control, and transcend the family of origin so as to regularly and permanently capture new opportunities and grow the business."
There's a lot of wisdom in McFarland's conclusions; it will definitely make you think differently about your business.
Reviewed by Mike Wilson
Published by Crown Business Press, 2008, ISBN #978-0-307-35218-7
Bread, Beer & the Seeds of Change: Agriculture's Imprint on World History
By Thomas R. Sinclair and Carol Janas Sinclair
Perhaps it was the title that caught my eye, I mean anything with beer in it has to be important. More likely it was the connection to beer and agriculture that made me wonder where the authors were going, and their look at agriculture through the centuries offers not only a history lesson, but perhaps a warning too. For example, a key weakness of the Roman Empire was that they had grown so much and their food was coming from so far away, it became difficult and costly to support the system.
The authors ask an interesting question: Why agriculture? And if you think about it the question is a good one. The varied diet of the hunter gatherer is far superior from a health standpoint than a grain-based, monoculture diet common with early agriculture. They answer this question and more.
The Sinclairs also look at a range of agricultural societies from the Sumerians to the British showing how those different cultures solved the issues of fertilizer and crop development. For farmers, who are involved in modern agriculture every day, this book offers a historical perspective for how we got where we are today. And yes, beer had a role in it. At less than 200 pages, it's an informative, but quick read. Check it out.
Reviewed by Willie Vogt
Published CAB International, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84593-704-1
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Last month's earthquake and tsunami in Japan is a perfect example of a black swan, broadly defined here as a highly unlikely event, positive or negative, that can cause massive consequences. Farmers will enjoy this book, if for no other reason than it takes a critical look at the odds of an event taking place and our reaction when the expected does not take place. Sounds a lot like agriculture.
Taleb, a former Wall Street stock trader-turned-professor, says history is made not of steady change and progress but rather 'jumps' controlled "by the tyranny of the unseen and the unpredicted" life-altering events, such as 9/11 or more recently, the global financial meltdown. Taleb argues that, while we spend huge amounts of time and money making predictions about the future, what really matters is the unpredictable change brought about by these so-called black swan events. If we accept the existence of black swans, we can do a better job setting ourselves up to collect the positives from such events. In other words, expose yourself to the upside possibility of success.
This is not a simple read – it jumps from topic to topic. Even so, it should resonate with producers hungry to understand risk management in an increasingly volatile world.
Reviewed by Mike Wilson
Published by Random House, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8129-7381-5
The Economics of Food: How Feeding and Fueling the Planet Affects Food Prices
By Patrick Westhoff
Westhoff's The Economics of Food provides a thorough look at the many different contributors to the run-up in food price. With all of the one-sided analysis I've read over the years, this book offers a very balanced and thorough approach to the food and fuel discussion.
Westhoff discusses the factors that drive food pricing; not just biofuels but also weather, income growth, exchange rates, energy prices, government policies, market speculation and more. Westhoff then uses his experience from his role at the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) of projecting 10-year baselines to walk through future scenarios.
For farmers this provides a broad knowledge base on why and how markets do what they do. Not only will it increase your understanding of the interconnectings of today's world food markets, it will also provide the tools to better educate those around you in providing the truth behind the role biofuels play in food prices.
Over the years, Westhoff has been one of my preferred sources of information on agricultural market impacts and policy. This book pulls together his vast expertise into a comprehensive look at food markets today.
Reviewed by Jacqui Fatka
Published by Pearson Education, Inc., Publishing as FT Press – 2010, ISBN 13: 978-0-13-700610-6; ISBN 10: 0-13-700610-1
Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty
By Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman
You can almost feel the anger from authors Thurow and Kilman as you read the opening paragraphs of this in-depth look at the world's food system. The two Wall Street Journal writers have covered food issues from their own perspectives. Kilman is the Journal's resident farm writer and offers an informed view of some of the issues explored in the book.
If you wonder about hunger and how it can happen at a time when we know there's enough food to feed the world, you'll get some disturbing answers here. Every organization covered gets a thorough look at how they deal with the food issues, and what you learn may make you angry too. But knowing at the height of the Ethiopian famine a decade ago that warehouses of locally produced food spoiled in elevators may make you wonder about just what's going on too.
This is a thoughtful read that will help you understand some of the key global issues impacting food.
Reviewed by Willie Vogt
Published PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group - 2009, ISBN 978-1-58648-511-5