Technology advancements in agriculture over the last 20-plus years have provided unique opportunities for increasing production and speeding the process of planting, growing and harvesting the food and fiber produced on farms coast-to-coast. Technology has also changed the way farmers and ranchers work, plan and navigate the growing complexity of modern agriculture.
With these advancements have come many benefits to producers, but not without a few drawbacks. While technology and mechanization have helped ease labor requirements on production farms, it also displaced a number of farm workers, driving many to urban centers in search of jobs.
Speaking before a large group at the National Farmers Union convention in Wichita recently, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed the need to boost rural economies while complementing production agriculture as the latest farm bill is rolled out.
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Vilsack outlined USDA strategies designed to promote economic opportunities in rural areas where advancements in science and technology have resulted in an exodus of ag workers moving to cities in search of employment.
"What do you do with all those folks that used to be on the farm? Is there a way we can keep them in our rural communities?" he asked participants at the convention. "This is not just about a farm bill; this is not just about agriculture. This is about rural life."
Some rural areas have been losing population for decades, but department's Economic Research Service data show that 2010 to 2013 marks the first period with an estimated population loss for rural America as a whole. The number of people living in non-metropolitan areas was 46.2 million in 2013, meaning that nearly 15 percent of U.S. residents are spread across 72 percent of the nation's land area.
Ag twelvefold more productive
Vilsack said agriculture is 12 times more productive today than in 1950, when he was born, and that means fewer people remain on the farm now. But the Secretary said part of his department's rural strategy includes conservation efforts that create markets and support industries such as outdoor recreation. Another is developing local and regional food systems where smaller-sized operators can be profitable by selling at farmers markets, to schools and to other local markets. Developing rural manufacturing facilities such as bioprocessing plants that can create good paying jobs also plays a role.
Vilsack said the time has come when the health of rural America must be carefully examined and protected, especially if technology trends continue to cause production farms to become less dependent on labor forces. Displaced ag workers may discover they can continue to work in agriculture, some even benefiting from new farmer start up programs to develop their own rural farming operations.
Farmers markets are among the fastest growing aspect of farming today, with 200,000 producers involved in the multi-billion-dollar industry. More than 82,000 farmers markets operate around the United States, and USDA has made it easier for people to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps, to buy fresh, locally grown produce at them.
"People like to know where their food comes from. It is an opportunity for smaller-sized operators to be profitable because they are not necessarily competing in a commodity market that essentially rewards efficiency and technology and quantity," he said.
The department is also awarding grants in its farm-to-school program to help local producers market products to schools, a $3 billion market opportunity, he said.
Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who spoke later to the group, also touted biofuels as a major economic engine for rural economies.