Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 19, 1999

When Lawrence talks, livestock farmers listen

by Brian Meyer, Ag Infomation Service

Last month, the farm where John Lawrence grew up was put on the auction block.

"My family had farmed the 270 acres near Tabor, since 1951," said ISU's extension livestock economist. "We fed 100 cattle and had a 60 sow farrow-to- finish operation. For a few years after high school, I ran the farm until deciding to enroll at ISU as a 24-year-old freshman."

Lawrence said he had no heartstrings tied to the farm. He knew his future lay elsewhere.

"I always wanted to work in livestock and agriculture. When I started graduate school, I understood that better information on management, marketing and financial matters would make or break farmers. That's where I wanted to be."

And that's where Lawrence has been. For the past eight years, he has been Iowa State's "go-to" guy for livestock market information. He is widely known in the livestock industry for his market analyses and forecasts. Farmers may not always see eye-to-eye with him, but they respect him. Last year, the Iowa Pork Producers Association named him an honorary master pork producer.

"I try to state an opinion and not come across as vanilla ice cream," he said. "I've found people will listen, even if they disagree."

He's a plain talker. He has been quoted as saying a large supply of cattle heading to market would cause a problem. His exact words were "a slug of cattle are coming and they'll clog the pipeline."

It's no surprise news reporters seek him out for the latest information and a quotable quote. When hog prices took a snout dive last fall, he was deluged with calls from The New York Times, NBC, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and dozens more.

Lawrence jots notes in a steno pad for every contact he makes. Each year he logs about 1,500 phone calls, e-mail messages and Web requests from farmers, businesses, government officials, media and extension staff. He has testified before Congressional committees and speaks at more than 100 meetings a year, from national conferences to knots of farmers gathered for breakfast in Main Street cafes.

"The theme of many of the questions I've been getting from farmers and others in the livestock industry is: What's my future, and am I going to survive?" Lawrence said.

"I avoid blanket statements, because there's no one-size- fits-all answer. Plus, my saying one way or another won't make it happen. My job is to prepare people to make better decisions. Then it's up to them to choose what's best for their situation."

Lawrence said his role is demand-driven. "As requests for information come in, my job is to know what the hot topics are, to stay timely and relevant, to understand what's going on, to interpret research or to conduct research if answers aren't available."

A good example is the hog-price crisis. Farmers have been getting less than a dime per pound for their pigs. They need at least three or four dimes per pound to break even. The root of the problem, said Lawrence, is simple: Too many pigs. Oversupply has overwhelmed packing plants. In turn, financial and emotional pressures have overwhelmed many producers.

"Agriculture has always been a cyclical business," Lawrence said. "It may be tougher than usual now because there are low prices for most of Iowa's commodities."

What's the way out of the price trough? "The cure for low prices is low prices," Lawrence said. "If it remains unprofitable to raise pigs, people will stop doing it. Then supplies will come more into line with demand."

Lawrence advises hog producers to focus on long-term goals rather than reacting to low, short-term prices.

"I tell them to take a deep breath and count to 10," he said. He urges them to take advantage of the financial management programs offered by ISU Extension.

Last year Lawrence was named director of the Iowa Beef Center, a focus for ISU programs related to beef cattle. "The center's goal is to help make Iowa No. 1 in quality, not quantity," he said. "The Iowa beef industry can be No. 1 in product quality, food safety, environmentally friendly production systems, exports and producer profitability."

A center study "showed Iowa beef scored above the national average in quality traits such as tenderness," Lawrence said. "Now we have a benchmark of Iowa quality we can build upon."

Iowa's livestock producers deserve respect, Lawrence said. "They're a special people. Not many businesses have their devotion and the commitment of time and resources. It goes beyond dollars and cents.

"Still, they need to make good business decisions because there's no guarantee they can continue to farm. So there's a pride of ownership on my part to get information to them so they can make those decisions.

And every now and again, you get an 'attaboy' that makes the hours you put into the job worth it."

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