Helping others with THEIR numbers

Extending my mind  further

Purdue University required every “foreign” student to take a comprehensive exam in the use of the English language. When my department head called me in to congratulate me –the highest percentile ever reached — I didn’t explain my preschool interests, or mention the large book of crossword puzzles a Cornell professor had sent me following his summer fishing visit.

Nor did I mention that I would be staying another full year after the qualifying exams to ensure that every word in my thesis would say exactly what I wanted said. By concentrating, I was investing mostly my mind resource to satisfy my own requirements.

With less attention to financial markets I was getting anxious to extend my “number thinking” and economic understanding — by sharing with down-on-the-farm families. Where would I find such an opportunity? Three years earlier I had been offered just such a position  out in the Saskatchewan prairie , and at the top of the salary range. But I declined after realizing my acceptance at Purdue would better prepare me for the career I was sure I wanted. Now that the deputy minister of Alberta Agriculture knew that Saskatchewan  was moving ahead in such a direction, he flew down to Indiana to offer me the chance to lead an economics extension program. I had to refuse, as I knew there was very little research data available from the farm level. A month later he informed me that a well-known professor at Iowa State was coming to head up research in Farm Management at the University in Edmonton. Would I reconsider ?

Yes, I would !

So the family (now four of us) bundled up in the new VW beetle ($1,790 cash) and made our way to Edmonton — a 2000 mile journey. I found the Department of Agriculture well out in front of what had been happening at the university — in sharp contrast to Indiana where anyone from Purdue received a warm welcome from farmers. After Gordon Ball arrived we worked together to develop an extension program in economics applied to agriculture. However, when it was apparent that the university administration was not  being supportive, Gordon resigned and returned to Iowa, leaving us at the Department  of  Agriculture “empty-handed”. I decided to leave too.

The University of Manitoba was interested in interviewing me, and since both Iowa and Purdue profs were already present, we were easily compatible. Best of all was the ready opportunity to develop a farm business association in a western area of the province, learning from a colleague who had started one to the South of  Winnipeg.

April 1st, 1961   Exactly 3 years after my first successful investment. This marked the beginning of my most totally useful career. It put me in the RIGHT place –at the RIGHT time — for the RIGHT reasons. The kitchen table trade-offs (“teacher-learner, learner-teacher”) would show me how prairie farms operate and I would share my financial management understanding. I came up with a name for this :

“Ackerman’s 5 A’s of Decisions”
* Accounting
* Analysis
* Alternatives
* Assessment
* Action

This one-handed process reaffirmed farm level decisions to “stay-the-course” ensuring viable businesses, and providing for  continuity with the oncoming generation. For me —my most productive half-decade. The questions I always asked apply to any business of any kind anywhere in the world :
* Is this farm big enough ?
* Is it productive enough ?
* Are the costs controlled ?

By analyzing the data from dozens of farms in the same area of the province I could develop appropriate standards and benchmarks. In buying a farm for myself and renting it to neighbours I was seen to be sharing some of the risks and uncertainties. No longer was I viewed as a representative of the “Y’Ought Club”  as the Department of Agriculture was called.

The next decade brought a special one-time opportunity for these farmers fully knowledgeable about their business. Increased prices in the grains and oilseeds they were producing, without a corresponding increase in costs !  They prospered accordingly. In the same decade (1970s) the Canadian banks were de-regulated. They took over the trust companies, funded government spending, and speculated in foreign bonds. This resulted in runaway interest rates, inflation and vast increases in debt at every level of government. Many farmers responded by bidding up the price of land. Large land purchases by European farmers worried about their communist neighbours added to the unwarranted inflation. In my classes I gave assignments asking for calculations justifying 15 to 20 % interest rates. Only those students responding  with “nowhere, no way” got my approval. It was time to sell and retire from farming.

That’s what I did. I went part-time at the university and commuted seasonally  to Nova Scotia to start up tourist businesses, retiring fully from academia four years later.

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