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COMMENTARY: To hell with agriculture
Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton on 11/16/2006

If you take a careful look around you, you will notice that there is much less interest in farming on every level than there was a quarter century ago.

For years we've heard about the decline of the family farm, but now we're beginning to see the slow down of the corporate farm. Why? Profits. There are more regulations to comply with and the work is not seen as glamorous.

In the past, there was a certain mystique associated with the cattle ranch. Dairy, hog and chicken farmers did not possess that mystique ... maybe because they were not featured in the movies. Horse farming is picking up and there is little question that it has long been portrayed as enchanting. Cowboys and thoroughbred stables have been featured in many, many movies. Chickens? The Egg and I from 1947 and of course, Chicken Run ... hardly alluring! As for cows and pigs ... you get the idea. Movies about family farming always seem to contain the "save the farm" theme, which is certainly not inspiration for a career.

The result is a population that has always had an available supply of good, affordable food with little knowledge of how it was produced. Translate that into interest in supporting agricultural education and research and you begin to see the problem. There are fewer and fewer schools offering education in classic agricultural activities. These are being replaced by genetic engineering and other, more sensational, areas of research. This work needs to be done, but so does the more practical, less exciting work. The reduction in government support for agricultural research has resulted in a shift toward areas that can generate funding from the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation, primarily in non-agricultural arenas.

We need more work to aid farmers in ways that can protect the environment, minimize wastes and the use of potentially hazardous substances through sciences such as bioremediation by natural processes. We need work that helps food animal farmers achieve improved yields without the use of substances that are perceived to be deleterious. All of this work is declining when it should be growing.

Population genetics as a science is disappearing. It has left poultry science and is declining in other food animals. Basic bacteriology could lead to natural means for control of pathogens and more bioremediation. There is still work to be done in physiology and nutrition of the various animals. Work in these fields resulted in much of what we know about human nutrition and health. All of this is disappearing from U.S. educational programs.

Why? Funding is part of it. With less interest from the voting public, there is a diminishing push to fund the institutions and their research. Regulation is another aspect. The anti-lab animal research movement has led to changes at the university level which make doing research with agricultural systems very difficult and expensive. This includes research that poses no threat to the animal, such as alternative feed ingredients. This is enough to make a big impact, but there is still another factor that overshadows the whole situation.

There are too many of us!

There are chickens, turkeys, beef cows, dairy cows, swine, goats, sheep, fish, ducks, quail and many other exotic types of meat. Add that to cotton, corn, soybeans, row crops, cut flowers, apples and oranges, etc. and you begin to see the picture. Each group has a trade association and a lobby and inside those groups there are further subcategories such as religious slaughter and organic processing.

Government funding responds to politicians who respond to voters. Which group supplies the most voters: the National Cattlemen's Beef Association or AARP? This is further exacerbated by the fact that the number of people with exposure to agriculture is declining.

In the end, we could lose agriculture as we know it and, with it, control of our food supply. We are already importing products from Brazil and China. Atlanta is moving agriculture out of north Georgia. Water supply is moving agriculture out of parts of Florida and California.

The Netherlands has land designated for agriculture and, as a result, you cannot build anything on it as it must be idle or farmed. We have no such regulations nor do I think we would tolerate such control of our land use. However, if we do nothing, the entire system, as we know it, will disappear. We could then be dependent on other countries for our food.

We need a unified front. And that would take the strength of leadership that is not readily seen. It would also take widespread resolve, which is especially difficult in dealing with the typical farmer who is, by definition, independent. It harkens back to the early days of the Grange. We are already late in the game, and the only way to shift the tide is to begin to talk about the situation and make as many people as possible aware of the trends.

I challenge you to take a look at the curriculum at your state's Land Grant College to see an example of this shift. You might just find an administration that has said, "To hell with agriculture."

Copyright 2006 Marketing & Technology Group


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