Why This City Kid Has a Big Heart for Agriculture
By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication & Organization Director: Member of the Governor's Advisory Council to the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) and Hickman’s Family Farms Chief Financial Officer, Jim Manos is a city kid with a big heart for agriculture. And, his experience working as Controller for Shamrock Dairy and Controller and Vice President for Parker Dairy Farms in the 1980s helped shape his love of agriculture and his advocacy stance on behalf of the industry.
With a BS in Accounting from Arizona State University, Manos honed his professional experience managing a chapter 11 reorganization for a multi-state homebuilder in the early 1980s. His big
In addition to his work with ADA, Manos previously served as vice chair of the governing board of Central Arizona Shelter Service where he served as chairman of the audit and finance committee.
He is also a past member of the governing board of St. Joseph the Worker in addition to sitting on an advisory panel to Kyrsten Sinema when she was on President Obama's healthcare advisory board. Manos advised her on the impacts various healthcare initiatives might have on small businesses.
Manos is known for having said, “Converts have a greater appreciation for their conversion than those born into it and that is how I feel about agriculture.” In this conversation
Hickman's Family Farms Chief Financial Officer, Jim Manos, is a city kid with a big heart for agriculture.
Arizona Agriculture: What’s been the most pleasantly surprising aspect of working
Manos: I have spent most of my professional life working for family-owned companies. First a homebuilder, then a dairy and now Hickman’s [Family Farms]. There are similarities in the three. Owners of family businesses tend to be passionate about their companies, and that is a good thing. A good family-owned business is one in which the owners pass that enthusiasm on through to the employees. Hickman’s has grown from about 110 employees to over 800 in the years since I have been here. That kind of growth makes it difficult to continue generating the owners’ passion in the lowest-level employee. So, I don’t think I would use the word surprising, but I do like that the Hickmans have worked hard at showing their appreciation for all employees; worked hard at making every employee feel they matter. As a company grows, that is what will make it successful. Employees are the number one component of a successful company, be it Google or Hickman’s Family Farms.
Arizona Agriculture: As Chief Financial Officer for a large family farm and fully focused on commodity prices, what price horizons on commodities, especially corn, do you have to watch for? Anything you’re preparing for and anticipating in 2017?
Manos: In a word, labor. We can deal with price fluctuations in our inputs such as corn. We have been doing that for years. There are so many tools available to us to limit the impact a price fluctuation in corn or soybean meal can have on us. Even such things as Director Killian’s annual symposium help us in making decisions about what levels of feed inputs we need to lock and at what price points. But labor is different. Factors outside of our control play way too big a part. It just came out at the big Farm Bureau [Annual] meeting held in Phoenix in January that we have lost a lot of the immigrant labor, not to increased enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws, but to the rise in Mexico’s own economy. I think any agricultural operation would be telling a lie if they said that they find the youngest of our workforce as a group that accepts dirty, manual labor. And with the rise in the minimum wage, they have alternatives. So, we need to work on how we manage that input, for labor is our second most expensive input. It will be our biggest challenge for the coming few years.
Arizona Agriculture: Compare your financial role on behalf of a farm versus your previous work for a multi-state homebuilder
Manos: Unfortunately, I didn’t have a very long run at the homebuilder during normal business times. In less than a year of my employment, the company filed Chapter 11 and I spent most of my time managing the bankruptcy.
Arizona Agriculture: You’ve discussed the “price-taker,” not “price-maker,” environment of the agriculture industry and how low agriculture prices put farmers and ranchers at great risk. You advocate a bit of an unconventional solution. Can you explain?
Manos: Of everything that is produced in this country, nothing is as important as food. We can all live without 65-inch televisions or even cellphones (as much as our grandkids may deny that). But food is obviously needed to sustain life. And I would contend of all the things we need to not depend on a foreign country producing for us, food is at the top of the list. We were all concerned a few years back about being dependent on foreign sources of oil. And there is no doubt a seriousness to that. But I would rather be dependent on Mexico for oil than being dependent on Mexico for food. Not that I don’t appreciate foreign trade and I really appreciate that Mexico can provide me the raspberries I mix with my Greek yogurt in the morning during the times of year they cannot be produced in our country. Foreign trade is an important part of agriculture and we should all support it. Being dependent, though, on foreign food is something different. We can be dependent on other countries for our food diversity without being dependent for our sustenance.
Many years ago, some very smart people realized this and enacted laws to protect our food supply. These protections are called subsidies, kind of a dirty word these days. And twice every decade, when new farm bills are discussed, these subsidies come under pressure. Like almost every other type of entitlement
One of the problems with farm subsidies is that they are not uniform across all agriculture. Eggs, for example, receive no government support whatsoever.
My suggestion is to let agriculture manage its own food production. It is advantageous to the general populace for us to over produce. Not because it drives prices down but because it assures there will be adequate food available if Mother Nature throws us a curveball. Take what happened with eggs during 2015 for example. We had plenty of chickens and plenty of eggs until the Avian Flu hit and wiped out over 35 million laying hens. All of a sudden, eggs were in short supply. Had we not been at overcapacity just a couple of months previously, you would not have been able to buy eggs at your neighborhood
The problem, though, with being over produced is that in years when something like AI doesn’t hit, the farmers are left to sell their commodity at below cost. The cost of guaranteeing that every person has access to inexpensive food falls on the shoulders of the American farmer. My solution is simple albeit somewhat controversial. Let the farmers manage their supply. That means that we let industry groups talk about production levels without fears of price-fixing lawsuits. I am not suggesting that we should be able to talk about what prices we charge or set standard prices for our goods but I am suggesting we be allowed to discuss production levels. We could then eliminate all subsidies and live or die as the results of our own devices, not because the American taxpayer bails us out. I am a firm believer in making people responsible for their own success or failure. Doing so in agriculture means our hands have to be untied and we must be allowed to manage our own production levels.
Arizona Agriculture: You’ve said, “Converts have a greater appreciation for their conversion than those born into it and that is how I feel about agriculture.” Talk about this a bit more.
Manos: My maternal grandfather was a convert to Catholicism and one of the best Catholics I have ever known. To this day, he serves as an inspiration to me. I think when we adopt a belief or religion or in my case, an industry that we didn’t grow up with, we see the good things in it that others may take for granted. There is an inherent “goodness”
Arizona Agriculture: USDA claims that agriculture will generate 50,000 new jobs in Agriculture every year through 2020. What should interested students start preparing for now?
Manos: One of the topics of frequent discussion between Director Killian and me is that we need to get the word out that a job in agriculture does not mean learning to drive a tractor, or how to pick lettuce or how to milk a cow. These are all great and important jobs but probably not that attractive to a college student. But there is so much more to agriculture now. We need people to fill positions such as mine, good finance people with an interest in doing something constructive with their degree. We need Ag economists to be bankers and to help us advocate
Arizona Agriculture: You’re a strong advocate for getting more youth involved in this industry earlier. You’ve mentioned that we don’t see enough young people at our industry gatherings. Expand on this point.
Manos: If I could impact any area of agriculture, this would be my choice. It is a simple question with complex answers. The first thing we need to do, and to start at a very early age, is to teach kids from where food comes. And to do so, we need to get help from people who have no connection to agriculture themselves. Too often, we design the lessons we want teachers to use and we always do so from our own perspective. I am a member of a family of teachers. And they are really good at figuring out how to teach a subject. I may know how to read but I could no more teach a 6 year old first grader how to do so then I could fly to the moon. My wife on the other hand, has taught hundreds of kids to read. We need to give teachers an incentive to teach about agriculture and help them with facts and then, stay out of the way. Let them figure out how to teach it. Provide funds, they surely don’t have any, and support but not lesson plans. Next, we need to start exposing older kids to the opportunities that exist in agriculture. As my answer to the question above hints at, there are more types of jobs than most people know. We need to reach out to high school and college students and bring them to industry meetings. We need to be active on college campuses and to offer internships. The banking industry recognized a while ago that hiring interns was the best way to fill the ever increasing vacancies for sharp minds. My final suggestion is probably the most difficult for the owners of family farms. We need to let go of the reigns a bit. When you have grown up
Arizona Agriculture: Farm families struggle with succession planning and perhaps one of the reasons we might see the next generation locked out of the engagement. From your perspective, what could families be doing to improve their family’s succession plan?
Manos: I think the answer to this lies in the answer to number seven above. Kids must know that they will be allowed to live outside their parents’ shadow and to make a mistake or two and to do things their own way.
Arizona Agriculture: What do we, in the agriculture community, need to be better at?
Manos: One of the most important changes I would like to see in agriculture would be more cooperation between the different elements of agriculture. We may produce eggs and you may produce hay and you may be a lobbyist for the dairy industry but we all have an interest in emphasizing to the general populace the importance of agriculture. And more importantly, it is important that we speak with a united voice to our elected officials. In the end, we all make our livings from producing food. That gives us a common goal and should forge a partnership. Too often I see groups think they can improve their lot only by diminishing some others. That is why groups like the Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture are important. They speak for us all, even when we have a hard time speaking for each other.