You can sense the melancholy as Ed Lloyd ponders the future of North Dakota agriculture. His usual grin slowly turns to a frown and his shoulders droop a little as he thinks about what may lie ahead.
Recognized around the state for his successes as an agri-businessman and legislator, Lloyd's comments and concerns carry weight. His frank words also are a little tough to hear.
"Farmers get exasperated because their equity is eroding, and it has been at a serious level for 10 years," said the president of AGVISE Research, Northwood, N.D. Also a farmer and rancher, Lloyd's many accomplishments have been recognized with numerous honors, including the 1974 North Dakota Agricultural Association Award, 1989 NDSU Outstanding Agriculturist Award and the 2000 Grand Forks and East Grand Forks Agri-business of the Year Award.
Lloyd believes the state's major industry is in a confusing and frustrating plight. As he sees it, new elevator complexes being built around the state need 100-car unit trains, indicating a call for large production. At the same time, some people suggest specialty crops or value-added projects with small, very specialized operations are the route to go. Lloyd thinks North Dakota cannot have it both ways. He is plainly unhappy as he suggests a return to the bygone days of the bonanza-style farms may be what's in store.
"At some point, everybody will have 20,000 acres with tenants working on the farm. That isn't what people want to hear, but, unfortunately, that's the way it is," Lloyd said. "Every year, the farms get bigger and more people have to quit farming or take another job to make sure the family has food on the table."
A state representative since 1995, he thinks lawmakers can help the situation by reducing property taxes and lowering inheritance taxes, but Lloyd says the trends are clear. "We will see a continual decline in the number of people farming in North Dakota, and you are not going to see more young people getting involved."
You feel Lloyd's pain as he makes that prediction. It's obvious that a love for agriculture and rural living has been a primary focus of his life.
In 1976, he left a secure job as a plant pathologist after eight years with the NDSU Extension Service to start his own farmer consulting business and to conduct field research and soil testing. "NDSU was a great place, but I had an inkling I wanted to do something else. Literally with $300 in our pocket, we came up here and started the company," Lloyd said.
The gamble and his hard work paid off.
AGVISE Inc. eventually grew to 138 employees, with laboratories in Northwood and Benson, Minn. Its many services include field research, soil analysis, plant analysis, water quality analysis and chemical residue testing to help companies get products registered through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Customers come from around the globe, because, as Lloyd puts it, "Our laboratories are in the top three in the nation, and I'd say we're the best in soil testing." In 1997, he sold the laboratory portion of the business to his employees.
Lloyd chose Northwood as the place to start his business for a fundamental reason - he has a passion for the gentle pace of rural North Dakota. "I get gratification out of evaluating disease organisms on a test plot, or riding a horse or working with my cows. That's just the way it is," Lloyd said. "I don't want a big city around me."
And that's what makes his thoughts about the future so difficult. Lloyd does not like the idea that the way of life he enjoys so much may not be available to coming generations.
His frown deepens a bit more.
But, then, with the courage and optimism that would make the state's producers proud, Lloyd's smile begins to re-emerge as he scans the horizon.
"Of course, I hope I'm wrong."