That extra bit of wind you’ve felt sweeping across your fields this summer is a collective sigh of relief from U.S. farmers who have anxiously and patiently awaited a new farm bill.
As with anything worthwhile, it didn’t come easy, and bringing this particular legislation to fruition was even more protracted and difficult than the farm bills that have come before it. As a result, many are already looking ahead to the next one and wondering if it can get any worse. Will the pressures of an increasingly urban population and world trade issues continue to force concessions from agriculture?
The answer, of course, is yes. You can’t bet on much — on commodity prices, the weather or the many other uncertainties associated with farming — but you can bet this most recent fight over a farm bill will pale in comparison to the next one.
There will be arguments not only for stricter payment limitations and against subsidies in general, but there might even be those who’ll contend that as a nation, we’ve outgrown agriculture. As far-fetched as that may sound to some of us, it’s not a completely new idea, and it’s one that might gain some traction before another farm bill is written.
This vision of the future of American agriculture, or the lack thereof, was expressed in a book published in the late 1990s by economist Steven C. Blank — The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio.
Blank wastes no time in stating his premise, with a first paragraph that reads, “America’s unsurpassed ability to produce plentiful and inexpensive food is coming to an end. The signals are all there, the economic trends are in position to bring about this inevitable conclusion. America, ‘the world’s breadbasket,’ is currently producing at its peak, but it is going out of the food business.”
That American agriculture is destined to end, he argues, should be no cause for alarm because the end of U.S. agricultural production is the result of a natural process that is making us all better off.
It might be informative here to note that Blank is no self-publishing nutcase — he is a respected Cooperative Extension economist in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at the University of California, Davis.
He foresees a time in the not-too-distant future when the United States will import nearly all its food from other countries, just as we currently import most of our clothes, furniture, electronics, etc. He reasons the costs of land and labor here will be too high for American farmers to be competitive in a global food economy. He further argues that creeping globalization of the food system is not some corporate conspiracy but is simply the result of the struggles of farmers and agribusiness, in America and around the world, logically pursuing their individual economic self-interests. This pursuit of individual economic self-interest ultimately will best serve the long run interests of society as a whole, he claims.
Blank’s fundamental arguments are based on the theory that economic considerations ultimately will prevail over all others. American farmers will be forced to abandon production of basic agricultural commodities — corn, soybeans, hogs, cattle, cotton, rice, etc. — in favor of high-investment, high-risk crops — such as wine grapes, berries, organic vegetables, etc. High-risk, high-return enterprises will be the last agricultural alternatives offering farmers any hope of realizing profits from employing high-cost land and labor. However, increasing affluence will allow increasing numbers of people to escape from the cities in search of a quieter, safer, healthier lifestyle in the countryside. As land prices continue to rise, agribusiness eventually will abandon America completely because they will be able to employ their management and capital more profitably in other countries.
Considering all of this, however, Blank says we should not be concerned because we’ll continue to eat well. This is simply the result of a free-market economy, he says, and it’ll be more efficient in the future to produce America’s food elsewhere.
In a global economy, says Blank, some nations can specialize in agriculture, others in manufacturing, and still others in services. This purportedly is the purpose of current World Trade Organization negotiations — to create a single global economy where all nations are free to pursue their individual economic competitive advantages.
As pure economic conjecture, Blank’s argument carries enough validity that it will be one of many used in the next farm bill debate. Let’s just hope that our leaders in Congress and the White House — whoever they might be at the time — recognize that American agriculture is about more than just numbers.