Farming Game teaches kids about economics

By AVIVA L. BRANDT

Associated Press Writer

GOLDENDALE, Wash. (AP) _ Just one roll of the die can take players from a bountiful wheat harvest to a deadly infestation of moths that damages their apple crops.

But The Farming Game is more than a board game. George Rohrbacher designed it to teach the basic economics needed to keep a farm afloat.

"It's an economic model," said Rohrbacher, a farmer himself. "This is what the family farm looks like at ground zero. And it's done with enough humor and whatnot that we've sold hundreds of thousands of them just for fun."

Even the Russians will be playing the game in a matter of months, as part of a project sponsored by an arm of the World Bank to help teach Russian farmers the ins and outs of capitalistic farming.

More than 350,000 copies of the game have been sold since Rohrbacher first followed through on a friend's idea in 1979.

The game is divided into squares like Monopoly, with each square representing one week. The corner squares are Christmas vacation ($5,000 salary every time you pass, $1,000 bonus if you land on it), spring planting (double corn yield that season if you land there), Independence Day bash, and harvest moon (collect $500 if you land on it).

The center of the board is divided into six farms, borrowing names from Washington's lower Yakima Valley, a fertile farmland area.

Players start out by inheriting 10 acres each of grain and hay, $5,000 in promissory notes from the bank and two option-to-buy cards, which can be exercised only in the 13 weeks between Christmas vacation and spring planting.

"Option-to-buy cards are like real estate listings," Rohrbacher said. "(Operating expense cards) are the bills: Every time you get income, you pay your bills. And farmers fate cards are those little things that happen along the way."

"These are things that I thought the 98 percent of America that doesn't farm should know about how essential this is to the health of the country," he said. "Farmers tend to be taken for granted. It's like air. Food is here, right? Well, it depends on where you are in the world whether food is taken for granted or not."

When the idea for the game arose, Rohrbacher was struggling to keep his new farm afloat. His first year, 1977, was notable for a bad drought. The following year was a flood. In 1979, it was drought again, and Rohrbacher's wife, Ann, who was pregnant with their third child, had just announced she was quitting her job to stay home with the children.

"She told me if I couldn't figure out how to make this damn farm pay, we were just going to sell it and we were out of it," he said. "She had given every ounce of blood she was going to give."

So the couple borrowed $90,000 to see if the game would sell.

"We knew, OK, we're in trouble. We're going down the tubes. One or more years like this and we've lost it anyway. So what do we do? We do something desperate. We borrow every cent literally that we could gin up and produce 10,000 copies," he said. "We literally bet every penny of real estate equity we had left. We bet the ranch."

The first copy of the game came off the production line four months later, just in time for Christmas sales. Six weeks later, nearly 8,000 copies had sold.

"The first 150,000 we had to work to sell. The rest have sold by word of mouth," Rohrbacher said. "Literally, all the new accounts we have opened since 1985 have been some customer went to some store and said, 'You have to get that for me.' And somehow they found out about us, like someone saw our name on the side of the box or something."

The game, which retails in stores nationwide for about $30, is used in 3,000 schools from Portland State University economics classes to fourth-grade social studies classrooms, Rohrbacher said.

In 1985, American AgriWomen gave a copy of the game to every member of Congress. The North Dakota Mental Health Service used it as part of a farm stress abatement program. And Aviation Mission Fellowship, which has missionary posts around the world, began distributing hundreds of copies to its furthest outposts after the group's president played it during a visit to Borneo in the early 1980s.

The game's even a hit in Amish country in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which Rohrbacher said is his largest concentration of retail outlets outside of the Pacific Northwest.

"We got a call on our 800 number the other day," Rohrbacher said. "Most of these stores are called so-and-so dry goods store. This one called and ordered 12 games and said, 'Now you remember, you can't call us back. We don't have a telephone.'"

The Farming Game also is available by calling Rohrbacher directly at 1-800-222-GAME.