Sunday, January 8, 2012

Economy and Agriculture: The Future

As I explained previously, the number of farmers and folks who live on farms is at an all time low in this country, having dropped from 90% in 1790 to less than 1% today. Why is that, exactly?

Well, the way conventional farming works these days makes it very hard to make a living just by being a farmer. According to the EPA, 40% of farmers list another occupation other than farming, and another 14% of farmers are retired. The implication is that farming is just not that lucrative.

Au contraire, says the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. According to a 2010 study of theirs, farming can have quite the economic impact for a region... but you have to do it right. 

The study analyzed the impact of expanding fruit and vegetable production in six states in the upper Midwest (IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, WI). The study looked at 28 different fruits and vegetables, but did not include crops that are already being grown in ample quantities (e.g. sweet potatoes, corn and apples). The study examined two different scenarios. The first looked at the economic impact of increased production on the farm level; the second scenario at the impact of increased production for 28 metro areas in and around the six states.

In the first scenario, the study found:
  • Increasing production of 28 fruits and vegetables in the six states could mean $882 million in sales on the farm level, more than 9300 jobs and $395 million in labor income. 
  • If half the increased production were sold in producer-owned stores, this would mean 1405 establishments, 9652 employees, and over $287 million in labor income.
  • Only 270,025 acres would be needed to grow the needed produce, roughly the same as the cropland in just one of Iowa's 99 counties.
  • The job gains would be significantly higher than the number of jobs produced by the same number of acres under conventional production. For example, increased fruit and vegetable production in Iowa would result in 657 farm-level jobs, compared to just 131 jobs currently available with the same land under corn and soybean production.

In the second scenario, the study found:
  • Increased fruit and vegetable production for the 28 metro markets would result in more than $637 million in farm-level sales and 6694 farm-level jobs - there are currently only 1892 jobs available under corn and soybean production in the area.
  •  An additional 6021 jobs would be created due to the farmer-retail direct economic impact of the increased production.

Here's what I take away from this study: there is no substitute for diversified farming. Growing a large number of different crops not only makes a farm more marketable to consumers (who wants to just buy corn all the time?), but insures that if you have one crop fail due to a poor year, you have a back-up with your remaining crops.

Also, diversified farming is far better for soil health - growing the same crop in the same area will deplete the soil of necessary nutrients. Not to mention, the deer will know exactly where to find your green beans. Tricky devils.

So now we can agree: farming can, in fact, be enough to make a living. But there are still obstacles for those who are trying to make it in the farming business. So stay tuned in the days ahead for Part III!

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