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The Culture in Agriculture – Entrepreneurial or Not?

Content Author:
Kevin Kimle

At the beginning of my appointment at Iowa State University in 2009, I traveled to Palo Alto, California for a conference for venture investors.  The event, during the height of the financial crisis, had one panel where a representative of the consumer electronics industry had a bit of a riff on how he viewed the financial bailouts of the time as being on the wrong-track. 

I was listening to him, and mostly in agreement with his sentiment.  But then he tries to put his free-enterprise ideas into context by comparing industries.  “We don’t want our industry, consumer electronics, to become an ossified, non-entrepreneurial industry.  Like agriculture.”

As I’ve never forgotten the comment, I must have reacted a bit defensively for the industry in which I’ve spent my entire career.  But it does beg the question: Is agriculture entrepreneurial?

What is the culture of agriculture?  Is it entrepreneurial?  Or is the perception of the guy from 2009, one of agricultural as a subsidized, rent-seeking industry without entrepreneurial dynamism, an accurate picture?

It’s a complex question to ask, and I won’t attempt to address it here.  But we do view our role at the Start Something College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) as working to build the entrepreneurial mindset of students and others in agriculture.  In short, we work to design courses, events and experiences that will positively impact the culture of agriculture and help nudge it to a more dynamic, innovative, and entrepreneurial place.

An example of that work was the recent six-week Contrarian Agriculture Series that we put together with the considerable help of Julio Bravo and the AgroBravo team in Brazil. 

Why the contrarian theme?  The idea is that an entrepreneurial mindset requires thinking differently, asking questions that are not being asked my many people, and confronting problems that other people may not have noticed or been audacious enough to tackle.

Also, I’ve wondered based on data I’ve gathered from ISU students about our collective mindset in agriculture.  For the last two years I’ve gathered data in my entrepreneurship course about the big five personality traits of the students.  The big five personality traits are the most developed and researched of the many personality tests, with the five traits being conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extroversion and openness to experience. 

The big 5 personality traits

There is a literature on the association of the big 5 personality traits with starting a business and entrepreneurship.  In brief, the two traits most associated with entrepreneurship are extroversion and openness to experience.

The more extroverted a person, the more likely they are to start a business.  It isn’t that more introverted people don’t start businesses, it’s just that some of the things that extroverts enjoy, drawing energy from people for instance, are useful when building teams, networking, selling customers and other things important in starting and leading a business.

Openness to experience is the trait associated with openness to new ideas and creativity.  I think that also makes sense to be correlated with entrepreneurship, as there is certainly a creative element to the process of identifying and solving problems.

So, I found it very interesting to view the averages of Iowa State University students in the big 5 personality tests.

For extroversion, the ISU students averaged in the 70th percentile.  Quite an extroverted group if the average in a large enough sample should be close to the 50th percentile.  But I figured it was students who enrolled in an entrepreneurship course, so perhaps there is selection bias.  More extroverted people choose to take entrepreneurships course, correct?

But what about openness to experience?  If there is a selection bias, then that should also show up in an average somewhat above the 50th percentile. 

That’s not the case, as the students average in the 29th percentile in openness to experience, quite low.  

ISU student personality test averages

What’s going on?  Why are students averaging so low on the openness to experience personality trait? 

I asked the testing service I use whether there was any research on regional differences in scores, and they replied that they were not aware of it, at least with their data.  My question is whether our regional ancestry, much northern European, might lead to this?  Or just something regional about culture?

Or is there something about agriculture?  Many of the students in the course come from farms and rural communities in Iowa and the Midwest.  Is there something about working in and around agriculture that leads to a lower average score for the openness to experience personality trait?  Agricultural production is really challenging, after all.  Things like weather and the markets, which you cannot affect very much, can be really punishing.  Trying new things can be very risky, so maybe our collective mindset is naturally a bit closed to new ideas.

I’ll do more work to explore this issue in the future, but it has provided some impetus for exploring what we can do to influence the culture of agriculture by making it more fertile ground for new, creative and sometimes challenging ideas.

The contrarian theme of the recent set of discussions challenged participants to think differently.  Contrarian thinking about complex systems like agriculture and food implies working to do three things:

  1. You ask different kinds of questions than you asked before
  2. You identify where your prior thinking, or that of those you work with, may be too simplistic
  3. You begin to recognize patterns and trends that will change the shape of the world – and potentially your business or farm

Each of us can play a role in making the culture of agriculture more innovative and entrepreneurial.  Please join us as we work to do our part.