They looked into farming's crystal ball — and what they saw in the coming decade was “a future of decline for the world of agriculture.”
Unless, that is, like Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas epiphany, farmers “step up to the plate” and change their ways in order to confront the challenges facing them in globalized agriculture.
The report by the National Corn Growers Association's Future Structure of Agriculture Task Force, looking at some of the scenarios in the evolution of agriculture, was presented at the recent Commodity Classic in Nashville.
“Growers need to understand that nothing is guaranteed,” said farmer Bill Horan, the task force chairman. “They must expect constant whitewater in the years ahead.”
Farm policy is no substitute for rural development, the report says. “Current trends point to a severe shrinkage of farmers and rural communities in the next decade unless agriculture's stakeholders chart a new course.”
One of every two rural counties lost population in the 2000 census, three of every four saw below-average economic growth, and “farm policies (commodity subsidies) have done little to help… reverse this decline.” Two types of agriculture are evolving in commercial crop production, the report says:
“Commodity agriculture, based on razor-thin margins and huge scale, is critical to keep the U.S. competitive in bulk industries and exports, but offers options for only a handful of today's elite commercial operators.”
“Value-added product agriculture, which attempts to produce high-quality food products in tightly linked food chains… offers many farm operations a management alternative… and should reward growers who add value through service or management.”
Farm scale is accelerating, the report notes, in part because technology (no-till, herbicide-resistant crops, bigger machinery, cold-tolerant crops, etc.) has drastically reduced the man-hours needed to farm an acre of ground. Those who don't expand may be “effectively underemployed for a large portion of the year,” needing to supplement family income off-farm.
If the exodus from agriculture is to be slowed, growers must find alternate income sources “that offer a more promising standard of living than raising No. 2 yellow corn or soybeans.”
Growers face multiple choices as they transition from commodity agriculture, the report notes. “No one-size-fits-all scenario will appeal to, or even accommodate, all of them. The common theme is that growers will need to cultivate relationships with suppliers, grain merchants/buyers, and others up and down the food chain…. Some may choose to contract in the pharmaceutical industry, raising small acreages of high-value crops under stringent quality control conditions. Some will seek boutique or niche operations such as ‘entertainment farming’ around urban areas…. The Internet offers the ultimate roadside stand for food producers. Commodity organizations have also identified promising niche crops that offer premiums to early adopters.”
No lone silver bullet can cure agriculture's woes, the report concludes. None of the models offer guaranteed income and specialty producers “will need to reinvent themselves multiple times in their careers to stay abreast of technology and customer demands.”
“The evolution of crop-based agriculture need not be feared,” the report says. “As it matures, it can face a far different ownership structure than the highly concentrated livestock and poultry sectors. But, a healthy future structure will not evolve without a new course in federal farm programs and related policies.”