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During the past several decades, agriculture has evolved into much more than simply planting, growing and harvesting crops. Today's most successful farmers aren't just farmers - they're also businesspeople who get the most bang for their buck through investments in rurally located value-added ventures.

This move toward entrepreneurship in agriculture will become increasingly important as the face of rural America continues to change. In an effort to prepare producers for these changes, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Future Structure of Agriculture Task Force prepared a comprehensive report, entitled "Taking Ownership of Grain Belt Agriculture," that offers recommendations for moving growers further into the value chain.

Several members of the task force, which includes representatives from various sectors of the agriculture industry, will present insightful findings from the report during a learning center session Feb. 25 at Commodity Classic in Austin, Texas. The report will also be made available to the public for the first time at the event, which is the joint convention and trade show of NCGA and the American Soybean Association.

"There are major changes happening in rural America," said Mark Schwiebert, an Ohio farmer who served as chair of the task force. "We're going to have to take a serious look at ways to protect our future, and this report addresses some of those needs. We must look ahead at areas and opportunities beyond commodity production."

Made possible by a grant from Altria Shared Solutions, the report is designed to benefit the more than 500,000 commercial growers in the United States who live and work in rural areas. Schwiebert said the document will also be presented to lawmakers and other key decision-makers who establish, implement and enforce federal, state and local policy.

In the process of gathering information for the report, members of the task force researched and analyzed several rural ventures in the Corn Belt to gain a better understanding of what makes a value-added venture successful. Those traits are outlined in detail in the report, which builds upon the findings of the first Future Structure of Agriculture Task Force report ("Choices in the Evolution of Corn Belt Agriculture") released in 2001.

"One of the characteristics we discovered with all of the successful businesses we looked at was that they are located in an area that gives them an obvious competitive cost advantage," Schwiebert said. Too often, he said, locations for value-added facilities are chosen for the wrong reasons, and as a result, the venture fails to be successful.

"The bottom line is you want the business to be profitable," Schwiebert said. "And the location has a great deal of influence on profitability."

Another of the task force's recommendations is to diversify the value-added business venture's administrative body. "There is definitely a need to have a diversity of skills and backgrounds within the body that governs the business," Schwiebert said. "Farmers tend to view the world as farmers, and we need to be open to ideas from outside our own fields of expertise."

He said the report describes numerous other characteristics of successful businesses and offers recommendations for involvement in value-added ventures.

The first task force report identified forces that are changing agriculture, Schwiebert said, while the latest installment offers practical information on how farmers can best position themselves to adapt to the changing landscape.

"How do we respond to changes in agriculture? And how do we benefit from the changing nature of agriculture? This report addresses those questions," he said. "It takes a more practical, hands-on approach to answering the questions outlined in the first report."

There's something for everyone in the report, Schwiebert says. All corn growers, regardless of the size of their operation or their location, are likely to find information that will help them prepare for the ever changing world of agriculture.

"We found that, if farmers are willing to embrace change, there will be some wonderful opportunities for agriculture in the future," he said. "We can and should have a hand in shaping our own future and taking control of our own destiny."

For more information on the Future Structure of Agriculture Task Force II report, "Taking Ownership of Grain Belt Agriculture," or Commodity Classic, contact NCGA at 636/733-9004 or go to AM

Geoff Cooper is a communications coordinator for the National Corn Growers Association.

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