I was in Houston last week for the annual Joint Convention of the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Assn. and Equipment Marketing & Distribution Assn. The meeting concluded with a panel of 3 farm operators who were brought in to share a glimpse of their world. The farmers candidly answered an array of questions, from right to repair legislation, to what they’re willing do to access equipment not carried by their mainline dealer, to their own investments in farm shops and technicians, and how they approached debt and capital spending.

The Q&A session took a side turn at the end that revealed how they as farmers learn about technology and innovation. It was a lively final few minutes, but I doubt few in the room found much comfort in what they heard next.

“Internet & Google” the first two farmers chimed in when asked about how they accessed information needed for their operation. A very reactive response. When they get around to a question, they ask Google and, I guess, allow the algorithm to tell them what they need to know and who to listen to. They cited the occasional farm show yet gave the impression they were too busy and head-down in their daily work to find the time to be students of their segment of agriculture. Their interactions with dealers were what you might call transactional business only.

One admitted that his equipment research activities only occurred when he had an unrecoverable breakdown — and typically only weeks before he needed a replacement. Little margin for exploration in that kind of timetable...

The “seasoned” farmer on the panel was quick to shake his head. He described his old-school approach; how he reads every relevant word he can and protects time for reading and thought, including articles on operators from other regions. For him, the learning process starts with a wide net (“ears and eyes open”) and gets narrower as he focuses his search, which leads him to other channels and sources.

The “passive learning” cited by the first 2 farmers struck me. Interviews with historians of farm technology regularly cite the role of trade media articles, conferences, demos/field days and farm shows, and each are credited for the pace that technology was transferred to farmers. Farmers were actively learning and discovering new opportunities, and there's many a story of guys who say they never would've survived without changing how they farmed.

As the only publisher in the room at the conference, I got a few pokes after the session wrapped up. Yet because of the investments our company has made in every channel where knowledge is shared — print, events, digital, audio, video and data — I don’t get too wrapped up about which media farmers choose to access best practices. But I do react when the intimation is made that knowledge is somehow less important today. Because farming can only progress at the rate that the leaders can learn. Slow that down, and well, we have a self-fulfilling result, don’t we?

Yes, I’ll admit it got my ire up … and helped fill a note pad on the flight home. It’s hard to imagine one dismissing their responsibility to seek out innovative ideas and best practices. It seems a delinquency of duty — to one’s shareholders, lenders, employees and their families.

Has farming become so demanding a business today, with operators so overwhelmed with the work of running their operations that they don’t have time to look up, learn and benchmark themselves against what their peers are accomplishing?

I went back last night to a column I wrote 19 years ago, titled “Dumbing Ourselves Down?”  It sounded the alarm of how our society was at risk of becoming over-reliant for the quick-and-now answers, instead of the serendipitous finds that accompanied the old-fashioned search for understanding

Those who were reared during Internet age are the ones taking over today. Fortunately, some had mentors who forced them into good learning habits they might’ve otherwise ignored; but some of those sages are also now gone.

To understand the changing psyche of the next generation, we may consider what molded their formative years. Are we at a time when society believes anything worth knowing can just be handed to them?

I’m not ready to wave the flag yet — hard lessons are known to change behaviors. But a question for you as a dealer is “what kind of customer do you want?”

Take the Traditionalist farmer. There may be little time or interest in changing much of their operation; but you can continue to sell them on what they need to maintain the status quo. Machinery and service hours can be sold on a fairly predictable schedule, if your manufacturers don’t get upended on the technology and your pricing is cheaper than the competition.

Then there’s that Early-Adopter, mover/shaker type who is evaluating different farm practices, trying new things out and running trials. I imagine they tire you out with questions. They’ll tolerate some lumps in the learning process, but after a time will leave you in the dust if you can’t keep up.

There are advantages and risks to both types. Which best serves your ability to compete? How you answer it also tells you the requirements of the staff you’ll need to develop and have in place to work with them.

If you find nothing revealing here and a mere reporting of the sorry state of affairs, I’ll share my vantage point. Most of my closer interactions with farmers, I admit, are the ones who spend days with us at a time attending our Farming Division’s two national conferences. (I should add these farmers prequalify themselves as learners via a $300-plus registration fee.) I'm reminded each year by equipment manufacturers, technology firms and fellow farmers that the 1,100 or so attendance we get at these national meetings are among the best of the best in innovation and early adoption. I’m now realizing maybe what they were saying in a polite way was that the high-stepping crowd we’ve been able to attract is not a representative sample of the larger attitudes and appetites toward finding a better way.

I’d add another observation. Don’t assume your customers are paying attention to what is best-in-class on their own. You, with your eyeball-to-eyeball interactions, have an opportunity to lead them to water, even if they go under protest. But you might need to do it in fresh ways, by organizing peer groups, or some means to expose them to the best minds of their peers.

Call it “best practice networking” of something of that ilk instead of labeling it as “education.” Because if that need was properly valued to begin with, we wouldn’t be talking about it this Tuesday morning.