The Planted Row: What kind of future do you want?

Stan Wise Farm Forum Editor
Farm Forum

Recently, an old friend told me that he once had a college professor who tried to convince the class that agricultural economics was the most important field of study in the world. He said that what happens to a population when the number of people directly involved in food production moves from 100 percent to zero percent is the most important question facing humanity.

If it isn’t the most important issue, I think it should be in the top 10.

We have reached a point where the number of people employed in agricultural production in the U.S. represents less than 2 percent of the population. The number of farms continues to decrease. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2007 to 2012 (the last census of agriculture for which we have data), the number of farms in the U.S. shrank by 4 percent.

During the same five years the value of U.S. agricultural sales grew by $97.4 billion. That increase in production is thanks to improved genetics, better production practices and more sophisticated equipment — equipment which grows increasingly automated.

Before too long, fully automated machines will be doing work on the farm. Several equipment manufacturers have built autonomous concept tractors which can drive themselves to the field, guide themselves around obstacles, work night and day, and can be controlled remotely. I’ve seen videos of robots designed to weed, prune, and harvest fruit and vegetable crops. I’ve seen robots that can herd livestock.

The future of agriculture doesn’t have a human face.

Other countries in the world are increasing their agricultural output, keeping commodity prices low enough that U.S. farms are forced to grow and take advantage of economies of scale in order to survive. For some farms to grow, others have break up.

The pork and poultry industries are almost completely owned by a very few corporations already. The cattle producers are still independent, but most of them are forced to sell to the “big four” meat packers. Crop farms are consolidating and growing fewer in number.

It’s easy to see the trend. Sooner or later (my money is on sooner), a very few individuals will control the vast majority of food production in this country. That kind of leverage can get you anything you want.

The forces of consolidation are already affecting rural America. The depopulated agricultural counties in California can’t get the policies they need from their state Legislature because it is dominated by the vast numbers of people living in urban areas of the state. Things are so bad that people in the rural counties are starting the process to break away from the coastal part of California to form their own state.

As the population dwindles in rural areas across the country, it won’t be long before other agricultural states experience the same problem.

There could be problems on the national level, as well. While the Senate gives each state two votes, the House of Representatives and the Electoral College give more power to states with higher populations. If the population of the countryside decreases — or even just fails to grow as fast as urban areas — due to ag consolidation and automation, will rural America still have a strong voice in national politics?

If this isn’t a future you would enjoy, you might want to become active in the Farm Bill debate that will take place in our country this year. It might be useful to examine closely each policy position you support and ask yourself whether it encourages consolidation or if it helps producers to stay profitable at their current size.

The debate for the 2018 Farm Bill is going to be interesting, and as my friend’s old professor said, there’s a lot on the line.