An Old Friend

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?
He said to him, Yes, Lord;
you know that I love you.
He said to him, feed my lambs.
(John 21:15).

An Old Friend

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of 2003 my mentor and friend at Michigan State University, professor Glenn L. Johnson, broke his hip removing a fallen tree from his back yard. Glenn knew me as well as anyone having served on my doctoral committee, attended the same church, and become a close friend during my student years. When I heard of his injury, he was in physical therapy and I called to check on my friend.

Asset-Fixity Problem

Among agricultural economists, Glenn was known for his work on the asset-fixity problem. This problem arises because, once investments in real capital are made, they cannot be reallocated without suffering a capital loss. Having invested, farmers often continue producing at a loss, which, in the aggregate, led to further price declines and worse losses. The asset-fixity problem provides a theoretical justification for farm policy intervention, which made Glenn ‘s work famous.

Behind the asset-fixity problem is the stark reality of farm policy—modern agriculture produces too much food. The world food problem that motivated me to enter agricultural economics proved to be more politics than reality. When farmers in the developed countries produce too much food, low food prices force farmers in developing countries into poverty. When I realized that the world food problem was a myth, I also realized that agricultural economics could not be my ultimate call as a Christian.

Professionals face the same asset-fixity problem when they invest years of work in a particular field, only to find their work ignored and their career stalled. For both the farmer and the professional, the problem of getting stuck is best solved by investing in new skills and activities during slow periods. As the saying goes, you need to know when to cut bait and when to go fishing.

Prophetic Word

During my conversation with Glenn, we talked about my work at OCC on agricultural banking, but I also regaled him with details of a sermon that I spent weeks preparing. On and on I went about this sermon, getting more excited by the minute.

Glenn listened patiently but pretty soon, like every good Illinois farm boy, he had reached his limit and blurted out: “Stephen, you really seem to enjoy preaching, why don’t you go to seminary?”

His seminary comment puzzled me, but I sensed that I had bored him long enough. I thanked him and excused myself.

Several months passed. I then heard through the grapevine that Glenn passed away the week after I spoke with him. The last words I heard from my mentor of 20 years was: “Stephen…why don’t you go to seminary? Stephen…why don’t you go to seminary?” For me, Glenn’s words sounded like Jesus’ last words to Peter (John 21:15).


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Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Two are better than one,
because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.
But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”
(Eccl 4:9-10)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I landed in the Finance and Tax Branch in Rural Economy Division (RED) in 1986, carryover work kept me busy for a number of months. Because of a thorough review process and a team of competent editors, carryover publications could take months or even a year to finish up. Still, I needed to get busy on the work of the new branch and earn my stripes in finance.

Although I had not been trained in technical finance, finance and the mechanics of trade worked hand-in-hand to affect agricultural exports. More importantly, U.S. agriculture required substantial investments in land, resources, and infra-structure that left it sensitive to changes in the financial environment. It’s funny—I never considered myself a derivatives expert, but my first lecture as a teaching assistant at Cornell University was explaining to my students in a retailing class how farmers could hedge their soybean crop in the futures market. I knew more finance than the typical economist, in part, because of my agricultural training.

My insight into the financial sensitivity of agriculture led me to have second thoughts about the Reagan Administration’s policy objective of dismantling agricultural support policies, particularly for grains and oilseeds, at a time in the mid-1980s when interest rates were both high and volatile—exchange rates were also volatile during this period and poorly understood in terms of their implications for agricultural trade. Rates of return on investment in land, for example, were about 1 percent during those years, yet interest rates had risen into the double digits as the Federal Reserve worked to tame inflation. Farm families were having trouble passing their farms onto a new generation, both because of these high interest rates and plummeting prices of grain. If price supports were then also removed, many farm families would be run out of business even faster than was already happening. In so many words, the Reagan policy seemed out of touch with their own republican base (most farmers at the time were republicans) and contrary to USDA own mission statement, as frequently and publicly espoused.

As I watched all this going on, I found myself repeating a rant about the financial implications of the Reagan policy initiative, even before I joined RED. After a while, I realized that this rant was both a real concern and could make a good policy analysis paper. Writing a paper critical of the policies of a sitting president was not, however, something to take lightly. In consulting with sympathetic colleagues, I was encouraged to go ahead and write the study. It was a relatively short paper with the title: Monetary Implications for GATT Agricultural Negotiations.

Because I had changed divisions in ERS, a finance paper would be reviewed by managers in RED, not International Economics Division (IED) where the policy implications would be more obvious. This meant that the paper would not be on people’s radar system during the review process and might potentially be published before critics would pay any attention—even if I offered to let them be reviewers!2/ It was important, however, to have administrative support when the critics finally woke up and began to raise questions.

My administrative support came in the form of a co-author. A friend and mentor had recently been promoted into a high visibility administrative position. He supported my critique and encouraged me to write the paper. In return, he became a co-author.

When my paper hit the news stands, the Reagan supporters went nuts and argued that the paper should be retracted from publication. A meeting was held; objections were noted; the paper went forward. In fact, the paper was so popular that it had to be reprinted twice. I was also invited to be a keynote speaker at a national conference with 6,000 in attendance[1] the week before the 1988 presidential election—I thought that my branch chief would pass out when I told him. As it turned out, that invitation was kicked up to the Secretary of Agriculture never to be heard from again.


Hiemstra, Stephen W., and Mathew Shane. Monetary Implications for GATT Agricultural Negotiations. USDA. ERS. Foreign Agricultural Economics Report No. 236. April 1988. (Revised reprint August 1988). 20 pp.

[1] My recollection was that it was the National Water Resources Association (

[2] As a mere economist, it was hard recruiting reviewers.

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Prayer Day 11: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Available on
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Sovereign Lord. God of the living and the dead. Thank you for caring enough for us that you sent Jesus to hell and back for our benefit. Keep our hearts and minds safe from a fascination with evil. Set our minds on heaven so that our hearts may rest with you, now and always. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Señor soberano. Dios de los vivos y los muertos. Gracias por preocuparte lo suficiente para nosotros que enviaste a Jesús al infierno y regreso por nuestro beneficio. Mantienes nuestros corazones y mentes a salvo de una fascinación por el mal. Pones nuestras mentes en el cielo para que nuestros corazones puedan descansar contigo, ahora y siempre. En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo, Amén.

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Parks: Mentoring to Make a Difference

Big_review_07212014Sharon Daloz Parks. 2000. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As the father of three 20-somethings, I have frequently been torn between repressed anger, guilt, and a feeling of total inadequacy as a parent. Thanks to the influence of Sharon D. Parks, Big Questions; Worthy Dreams, I have found mentoring to be a reasonable response to my parenting situation.

Parks makes two points that clarify the mentoring task at hand.

The first point is her definition of a young adult. She asks: When does one cross the threshold into adulthood? The response of North American culture is ambiguous (4). Finding work and a spouse are still important, but the time required to become educated and increasing problem of downward mobility make it harder to become settled. The ambiguity and instability of the young adult situation in society are reflected in the greater challenge facing mentors, including parents.

The second point is reflected in her title. Young adulthood is a life-stage where the formation of meaning is particularly important. Parks writes: in the years from seventeen to thirty a distinctive mode of meaning-making can emerge, one that has certain adult characteristics but understandably lacks others (6).

The importance of challenging the young adult to take new faith steps is captured in her prescription–develop and expand a worthy, young adult dream. Parks writes: If the young adult Dream is to have mature power and serve the full potential of self and world, then it must be critically reexamined from time to time throughout adulthood (219). The role of mentors is to help the young adult craft, refine, and be true to this dream.

Parks writes Big Questions, Worthy Dreams in 10 chapters:

  1. Young Adulthood in a Changing World:  Promise and Vulnerability;
  2. Meaning and Faith;
  3. Becoming at Home in the Universe;
  4. It Matters How We Think;
  5. It All Depends…;
  6. …On Belonging;
  7.  Imagination:  The Power of Adult Faith;
  8. The Gifts of a Mentoring Environoment;
  9. Mentoring Communities; and
  10. Culture as a Mentor (vii).

These chapters are bracketed by a preface and various references at the end.  At the time of publication, Parks was an associate director at the Whidbey Institute near Seattle, WA [1].  She is now involved with an effort called the Leadership for the New Commons [2].  Formerly, she was with Harvard Divinity School and other noteworthy institutions.

The scope and depth of Park’s scholarship suggests that this book targets graduate students and professionals focused on counseling young adults. Most readers looking for advice on parenting are likely to find this book a challenging read. The gap between these two ready audiences suggests an opportunity for a follow up text focused on aid and comfort for the typical parents of young adults.



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