Size matters, especially in agriculture, although it’s but one factor underlining the urgency of re-orienting our food production systems to incorporate more diversity.
Heard about the latest El Niño?
In addition to the old joke about the weather — everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it — its unpredictability makes it tough on the folks involved in raising crops and livestock.
Perhaps more to the point, when weather patterns can be predicted, the impact can be even worse.
As recent research conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies indicated, the potentially record-breaking El Niño cycle taking shape right now and going forward into the 2016 season generally causes warmer winter temperatures across the Midwest.
What exactly does that mean for agriculture? Warmer weather? Probably. Wetter conditions? Very likely.
Unfortunately, even those broad generalizations may not be accurate for individual farmers or producers, as each El Niño cycle is unique and different and impact a number of variables that can cause dramatically different effects.
“It’s not like [El Niño] means a linear trend of warmer and wetter,” Peter Nowak, a professor with UW’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies, recently told National Public Radio. “We’re going to have high variability. Some areas of the state are going to get wetter, some areas are going to get drier, and it could flip-flop from year to year.”
Such variability puts a premium on agricultural diversity, not only to better withstand localized weather patterns, but also as the core of agricultural sustainability. But the important of such diversity extends beyond crop rotations.
Reversing a negative cycle
When national security is discussed, the issue of food security needs to be part of the equation. Isn’t being able to provide for its population central to any nation’s security? As we commemorate yet another anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s instructive to remember the impact that years of famine and food shortages had on the populations of Europe and Asia during and after World War II.
Along with productivity, here in 21st century America, agricultural diversity also is critical in other areas, perhaps the most important being land use.
The scaling up of the size of agricultural operations is arguably a critical factor in food availability. But it hasn’t come without a cost.
For obvious reasons, most American cities are situated on or adjacent to the most productive farmland. People didn’t make a habit of settling in large numbers somewhere that crops or livestock couldn’t be successfully grown. But as urban footprints continue to expand, development tends to leapfrog the core metropolitan boundaries.
That drives up the value of adjacent farmland, increasing the incentive for farmers and producers to sell off their acreage for profits often unattainable from the actual production operations.
As the number of farms, dairies and pastures decreases, agricultural infrastructure tends to disappear, making it all the more likely that eventually, entire swaths of our nation’s best and most productive farmland will be taken out of production forever. It’s a vicious cycle with potentially devastating consequences, and the only real remedy is establishing smaller-scale-yet-profitable farm operations: raising heritage livestock and growing organic produce or other specialty crops.
Those are all niche markets, but there is no other way to maintain farmland in proximity to the very urban areas where such specialized markets can be serviced.
The clock is ticking
Equally important, with the cost of land and equipment, about the only way to attract newcomers to agricultural production is via specialization. Unless one is fortunate enough to be the heir of a large working farm, the bar is set prohibitively high for anyone to become a commodity grower, feedlot operator or dairy farmer on a scale sufficient to ensure profitability.
The only viable option for a newcomer to production agriculture is to specialize. That’s one of the only ways to keep smaller operations in business—and even then, you’d probably need a family member earning an outside income.
But attracting a new generation of growers and producers isn’t just impactful for land use, it’s essential to the viability of the entire agricultural system.
USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture showed that during the last 30 years, the average age of American farmers has increased by nearly eight years, from 50.5 years to 58.3 years old.
That may not be considered old if you happen to be a presidential candidate, but for a profession that requires perseverance through many seasons to become both proficient and profitable, it bodes ill for the future. It’s not as if mechanization has some huge leaps yet to be implemented that could further reduce the number of farmers without affecting food productivity.
What happens when many more farmers reach retirement age in the years to come — and 58.3 is getting dangerously close to that ceiling — and there are no family members or business partners keen to keep the operation going?
The land is sold for development and taken out of production permanently.
That cannot continue, and the only possible reversal is the promotion of agricultural diversity with at least as much energy and funding as the nation currently support commodity production.
No matter what kind of weather El Niño actually brings.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.