Despite some setbacks in the world trade situation in recent weeks, one Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist remains optimistic. I really don't have any concerns about the future of agriculture,” says Bob Goodman, an Extension agricultural economist and Auburn University associate professor of agricultural economics. “Our farmers are well-educated, literate and highly adaptive.”
In addition, he says, they have a good grasp of technology and know how to use it to stay competitive.
Even so, Goodman, a former producer himself, is no stranger to the concerns expressed by many producers.
“If subsidies were wiped out, we would see a shift in the cost of agricultural production,” Goodman says. “They would make less money and use less equipment, and, consequently, the price of that equipment would fall.”
Land prices also would plummet and so would rent prices. Sagging demand for farm equipment would not only affect equipment dealers but steel and equipment manufacturers as well as the labor market, he says.
“People pushing to remove subsidies have no idea what kind of impact this would have on the economies of the developed world,” Goodman says. “It wouldn't exactly be a house of cards, but it would be similar in the way one factor would affect many others.”
Still, as Goodman stresses, this is only the worst-case scenario. A more likely scenario would be an evolutionary approach — one in which the current price-support structure is gradually replaced by one that pays farmers for performance, such as following environmentally friendly farming practices.
One approach that has sparked a great deal of debate recently involves carbon sequestration. In essence, farmers would be paid to adopt limited-tillage practices that trap more carbon in the soil, preventing its release into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.
As its turns out, farmers in Alabama and much of the Deep South already are doing that, Goodman says.
“The kind of limited-tillage farming we've adopted in the South already is headed in that direction,” he says. “We're farming in ways that improve the resource all the time, building up organic matter and enhancing soil fertility.”
Livestock producers already receive similar farm payments for adopting practices aimed at preserving water quality by reducing animal waste runoff.
The important thing to remember, Goodman says, is that farming remains one of the most adaptive segments of the U.S. economy. This adaptability, he believes, will sustain farmers as they navigate the turbulent waters of an increasingly global farming economy.