The Graying Farmer: The Future of U.S. Agriculture

While we await the 2008 agricultural census results, the trends in some of the data are fairly predictable. A prominent feature of the 2002 statistics, the “graying” of the American farmer, continues to be a cause of concern for many.

In 2002, the census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the average age of America’s estimated 2 million farmers was 55.3 years. With only 5.8 percent of farmers under the age of 35, some fear that the retirement of older farmers and a shift to large-scale operations will have a negative impact on the industry.

“There’s a real cause for concern,” said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. “We need a new generation of farmers to reinvigorate farming and our communities.”

Not all have a negative outlook, however. According to a new survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation earlier this year, the next generation of farmers are ready to step up to the plate.

The study, which surveyed farmers and ranchers ages 18 to 35, found that the vast majority of young farmers (83 percent) are more optimistic about farming than they were five years earlier. In addition, 92 percent see themselves remaining in farming for the rest of their lives and 95 percent would like to see their children follow in their footsteps.

Young farmers are earth-savvy as well. Taking care of the environment, practicing conservation tillage and utilizing new technology were a priority of those surveyed. High levels of involvement in agricultural organizations like the Farm Bureau and Future Farmers of America is also encouraging.

The availability of land, overall profitability, urbanization, government regulations and the cost of health care were cited as the biggest challenges faced by young farmers. Though these are very real obstacles, many are finding ways to give these fresh faces a hand.

Some states now offer low-interest loans, tax breaks and mentorship programs for new farmers. Colleges and universities are also getting in on the act. The University of Oregon introduced its Small Farms Program to offer guidance and education for both young and old farmers across the state. Drawing a different demographic, the new organic and small farm niche has opened the doors for a new “hip” generation of farmers.

“Young farmers are an emerging social movement,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who is making a documentary called “The Greenhorns” about the trend.

Do you think that this enthusiastic generation will prove to capable of handling the future of American agriculture? Will this organic movement, new technology and a “green” focus lead us to where we need to go? Let me know your thoughts.

Global Trade Talks and the American Farmer

The Doha round of trade talks, which started in 2001 with the goal of opening world markets, began again this week after a two-year hiatus. The negotiations thus far have revealed a significant struggle in balancing the needs of both wealthy and developing nations.

A major focus of the talks is the amount of subsidies paid to U.S. farmers. On Tuesday, following a similar proposal by the European Union, the United States offered to cap farm subsidies at $15 billion. Though lower than the original proposal of a $16.5 billion cap and far lower than the current ceiling of $48.2 billion, the leaders of developing nations were not impressed.

Leaders in India and Brazil, who feel that farmers in poorer nations are squeezed out of the market by subsidies, are not happy with the direction the talks are going. Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said that the U.S. proposal was “hardly an offer.”

“We need to talk real cuts,” he said. Brazilian delegates simply said “nice try” and that the new level was “still too high.”

U.S. leaders are facing fire from home as well. Though the intent of the deal is to open important new markets in developing countries for American farmers, many believe that richer nations, such as the U.S. and European countries, will get the short end of the stick. After making concessions that will affect millions of farmers, there is no guarantee that the poorer nations will open their markets to the extent necessary for a truly fair exchange.

Those in the agricultural sector are unhappy with the concessions made by U.S. representatives at the talks. Kent Conrad, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, said supporting the decision to cap subsidies was “not negotiating in the interests of hard-working family farmers.”

Other U.S. concerns include the lack of consideration of some of the biggest factors influencing American agriculture, such as labor issues, environmental and health factors and biofuels and energy.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis stated that the economy is vastly different than when the talks started in 2001.

“We are in a new era that requires new thinking,” he said in a statement to President Bush last week that urged him to accept “no trade deal” rather than a “bad trade deal.”

Most are highly skeptical that these negotiations will produce a profitable and workable plan, but a little hope remains. Razeen Saly, director of the European Centre for International Policy said, “The odds are still against a successful conclusion, but the main five or six players might pull some kind of rabbit out of the hat.”

While the final outcome of this deal still remains to be seen, several questions come to mind: Is the United States sacrificing the interests of the American farmer to strike a deal? Will the U.S. concessions hurt our agricultural sector? Will these open markets bring new cash home? I would like to know your views. Please feel free to comment below.

Local Food Important to Consumers

Safety, quality and the environment seem to be on the minds of American consumers lately. In light of recent food scares and the push for greener lifestyles, many are opting to buy local foods or get their produce directly from the farmer. This cuts down on the amount of energy and emissions associated with transporting food from different areas of the country.

A recent study by Ohio State professor Dr. Marvin Batte found that grocery shoppers are willing to shell out more money for locally grown foods. Deemed fresher, more environmentally friendly and a boost to local farmers, consumers say they were willing to pay more for quality produce.

On the heels of this study, Wal-Mart announced that it is beginning an initiative to purchase and sell more than $400 million worth of produce grown by local farmers this year. This move will cut 672,000 “food miles” and add up to about $1.4 million in annual savings for the company. Wal-Mart is now the nation’s leading purchaser of community produce.

Local farmers’ markets are also thriving. The number of markets in the U.S. has increased 21 percent in the past four years. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, farmers’ market revenue will top $1 billion this year. What used to be a rural phenomenon has turned into a hip trend.

Some consumers are taking their environmental convictions and love of local food one step further. A growing group of Americans has passed over grocery stores and markets completely by purchasing shares of community farms. According to a July 10 article in The New York Times entitled “Cutting Out the Middlemen, Shoppers Buy Slices of Farms,” this new brand of sharecropping has increased in popularity since its inception in the 1990s. Shareholders in these farms pay a fee and are entitled to a certain percentage of crops and livestock. This movement has supported small local farmers and allowed the community to take an active role in food production.

These trends are already making an impact on how farmers operate. In addition, the push for local food and environmentally friendly practices seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The question now is: How will this affect the American agricultural industry?

Election 2008: Energy and Agriculture

With the hot-button issues of fuel, energy and food at the forefront of national and world debate, there is no question that rural America will have a huge impact on the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.

John McCain and Barack Obama both seem to realize how important the topics of agriculture and energy are to their success.

While on the campaign trail, both have agreed the United States must take steps to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, develop new technology and invest in renewable energy. The candidates understand the importance of ethanol, clean coal, lower consumer costs and a strong economy, but each has approached these goals in very different ways.

The biggest difference between the candidates’ plans are their views on the subsidization of corn-based ethanol and ethanol import tariffs.

According to a June 23 article in The New York Times, McCain strongly opposes continuing these multibillion-dollar annual payments and supports the removal of the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on highly efficient sugar-cane ethanol. In a speech at Fresno State University in June, McCain cited the “unintended consequences” of global price distortion, high costs to consumers and a desire to “level the playing field” for all ethanol types as the reasons for his stance.

Other key components of McCain’s plan include uniform incentives for the purchase and development of flex-fuel vehicles, new nuclear power facilities, offshore drilling expansion and a $300 million prize for the development of a car battery that would jump-start the market for hybrids and plug-ins.

Obama is placing his bet on U.S. ethanol production and the continuation of subsidies and the ethanol tariff. According to his Web site, he will push for increased ethanol production and funding and research for new cellulosic ethanol development, which he believes is the future of the fuel market. Obama does not support offshore drilling or new nuclear power plants.

Obama presented his energy plan in a speech in New Hampshire in October of last year. He outlined additional portions of his proposed policy, including a focus on increasing regulations for power plants, capping carbon emissions, a $150 billion investment in clean energy development and an immediate push to phase out incandescent light bulbs.

While these two camps continue their battle for the White House, we are left to ponder the impact of their plans. Balancing our empty pockets and our desire for a healthy America will make this a tough decision. For now, the question remains: Who will be the best candidate for the American farmer?

A global food crisis

One of the biggest complaints of today’s consumers revolves around high gas and food prices. This complaint is not just from consumers in the United States. It has reached a global level.

Over the past 12 months, global food prices have increased by an average of 40 percent. Experts cannot find a single driving force behind this increase, but argue that there are numerous factors. These factors include an increased demand for food commodities from developing countries and increased costs of transportation.

One of the reasons for this global food crisis is the recurring natural disasters such as the extended drought in Australia. This drought has caused the annual rice harvest to fall by as much as 98 percent. The drought in California has killed a large number of farm animals. The floods in Iowa have destroyed acres of cropland. The unseasonable rains in Kerala, India have destroyed tons of grain. The effects of Cyclone Nargis on Burma caused a spike in the price of rice. The list goes on and on.

The United Nations estimates that it would take at least $30 billion per year to solve the food crisis that has spread across the world. This global food crisis has left over 862 million people undernourished. It would take roughly 10 years to make sustainable improvements, amounting to about $300 billion.

The World Bank is contributing $1.2 billion to help mend this crisis, and they are actively trying to obtain funding from other countries to help create more financial aid for poor countries.

According to World Bank research, the current level of commodity prices are directly impacting the food prices, throwing about 100 million people into the ranks of the poor and hungry. In late May, Congress devoted a hearing to the global food crisis and identified a series of proposals that would hopefully make a difference in alleviating the problems.

Arvind Subramanian is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University. Subramanian proposes simple solutions as a part of the work he has done for his writings on growth, trade and development in an article titled “The global food crisis: A toolkit for audacious leaders.”

Short-run solution:
Ensure early emergency reaction to food shortages, including the capacity to mobilize food quickly and cheaply if necessary.

Long-run solution:
Use the current crisis to bring agriculture back into focus. The importance of agriculture has been neglected for decades. With this current crisis, agriculture has received increased development assistance from governments and multilateral organizations. People are now seeing the value behind agricultural development.

So what’s being done?

The UN also has set up the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is providing $4.2 million to boost a program tackling rural poverty in the West African island nation of Cape Verde. This program’s goal is to assist roughly 60,000 poor rural people through improving sustainable agriculture efforts and ensuring that the food is affordable.

Will these various plans work? How can we help solve world hunger? Is there a solution? And will this food crisis hit the U.S. especially with the raising prices in fuel and food?