Going Green

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Future Shape of Agriculture?

That agriculture has changed through the years is obvious to anyone who cares to look. It began in the dark recesses of history when man first decided that he could grow his own food rather than hunt for it or gather it in the wild. Today it is a high-technology, capital intensive business that requires expertise in multiple disciplines for success. Where will it go in the future?

There are many today who believe agriculture will transition from the large-scale farming operations of today to smaller, more diverse businesses that supply a local market. Some even envision high-rise farms located in skyscrapers in the inner city environment. Such skyscraper farms will be energy self-sufficient with strong emphasis on water and nutrient recycling through artificial climate systems.

Urban sprawl continues to encroach upon prime farming land across the country. Suburbs of major cities spread farther and farther from the city centers replacing dairies, orchards and grain fields with houses, apartments, and businesses. The competition between agriculture and people for water becomes more intense daily, especially in drier areas of the country that are dependent on aquifers and reservoirs for their water supply.

Drought situations in the west over the past year have highlighted the competing demands of agriculture and people for the same water resources. In the illogical world of political expediency, it is often agriculture that suffers. As long as we live in a country of bountiful food this will likely be the case.

Energy costs are another factor of agriculture production that will receive increasing scrutiny over the coming years. There is hope within the farming community that increasing emphasis on bio-fuels will not only increase revenue potential through crop sales but will create the opportunity for becoming fuel independent through on-farm manufacture of bio-diesel and ethanol. With additional energy supplementation through wind and solar power, farmers could essentially “disconnect” from the grid, or better yet, sell electricity to the power companies.

Global warming is another issue that must be considered as we look to the future of agriculture. Whether you believe that global warming is man-induced, or the result of natural climate cycles, there is evidence that warming is indeed occurring. If nothing else, the “idea” that weather patterns are being affected is causing legislation to regulate behavior that will have an impact on agriculture. From alarmist hype about methane from cows, to the cost of fuel, public perception of agriculture will result in regulatory changes that will impact the way we farm.

So, what is my vision for the future of agriculture? Definitely positive, but full of turmoil as we transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on alternative energy sources. Growing population will continue to create the need for more food. The energy infrastructure will become more fractured and localized with much of the energy consumed produced locally rather than delivered by large conglomerates. Transportation costs and efficiency will affect how farm products are delivered to market. The concept of “skyscraper” farms may not be as far-fetched as our first reaction makes them to be. Farms will likely become more diversified and even more dependent on technology. Precision technologies, on-farm energy production and increasing vertical integration will become the norm. Regulations will change in nature from the current form of price support programs to more oppressive rules on nutrient and waste management and possibly even zoning.

The future will require even greater capital investment than is currently demanded. This will result in a bi-modal division of agriculture into a few large corporations controlling vast resources on the one hand and a large number of micro-farms on the other hand that target specific market niches such as fruits and vegetables for local markets.

Now, like any other prognosticator, I want to put in my disclaimer. All of this is speculation. Who knows what the future will really hold? One guess is as good as another. The only thing we can be sure of is that change will happen. Let’s hope it is all good.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Very well thought out written outlook of the food and fiber industry. A few thoughts to add, I put them on my blog- http://lacaland.blogspot.com