If you ever get a chance to hear Lowell Catlett speak, do so. You will not regret it. Buy a ticket if you have to. The experience will be worth the money.
Catlett, a Regents Professor in Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business and Extension Economics and the Dean of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, is, in a word, entertaining.
But you can’t describe Catlett in a word. He seems equal parts Baptist preacher, prophet, teacher and Red Skelton. He’s at once provocative, self-deprecating, funny and motivational. He rubs his hands through his thinning hair in mock exasperation and contorts his face into images reminiscent of Halloween.
And he’s smart. And he knows how to work a crowd.
I’ve been privileged to sit in an audience, mesmerized by Catlett’s performances — and his presentations are worthy of the term — several times, and I’m never disappointed. The latest was at the recent Ag Issues Summit in Austin.
Catlett is billed as an economist and futurist. I’m not exactly sure what a futurist is — one conjures up an image of crystal balls, turbaned heads and outlandish prophecies. Catlett is none of that. He’s more than that.
He talks technology. He reminds us of where we’ve come from, what we’ve accomplished and where we are now. Then he pushes us a bit further and asks us to imagine where we might be, where we likely will be, because of advances in technology.
He pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and reminds us that the invention has evolved from Bell’s initial “Watson.-Come-here.-I-need-you” device.
Someone suggested “why don’t we cut the wires off?” Catlett quipped. He explained that the phone, originally designed for voice, is now rarely used for that purpose. We use it to text, search for information and take pictures. “We text people sitting next to us!” he said.
He pulled an electronic reader from his inside jacket pocket. He mentioned that the thin device holds a library — thousands of books.
“And Amazon, a company built to sell books, is now getting out of the book business,” he said. They sell electronics.
He mentioned hand-held electronic devices that soon may be able to detect illness in animals — including people — as well as plants.
He also reminded the audience of what a role technology has played in agriculture, allowing the U.S. consumer to spend just 9.5 percent of disposable income on food. Adding “booze and all the meals bought away from home pushes that total to 13 percent,” he said. Even adding a mortgage, which he says is a bargain at current interest rates, moves the percentage of U.S. disposable income expenditures only to about 30 percent.
With food and housing accounted for, Catlett said Americans have 70 percent of their disposable income available “to buy crap.” He said the average American woman owns 17 pairs of shoes. He did not mention similar expenditures for men but suggested beer might be a favorite.
“We have a high crap factor in the world,” he said. “And 70 percent of our economy is consumer driven.”
He said modern agriculture is not just about producing calories but about energy and the environment. And technology.
But he comes back to special aspects of farmers and agriculture that continue to amaze. A dog, he said, can smell a person’s breath and detect the presence of colon cancer — more accurately than medical tests. He said people and animals have calming effects on each other.
“The old term, ‘there’s something about women and horses,’ is true,” he said. “When a woman is near a horse, their heart beats come into rhythm.” He said similar results occur when people come into contact with dogs and other animals.
The peaceful aspect of rural life, too, he said plays an important role in easing suffering and keeping people healthy longer.
His message seems to be that technology will take us where we may never have expected to go, but the basic needs of humans for companionship (people and animals) remain at the core of our beings.