Thinking About Farming
Planting new questions about Illinois ag
April 12, 1984
A more thoughtful piece about farming than I usually essayed in my IT column space, largely because the parent to it was written for Illinois Issues magazine and because its arguments rely on the sages of the University of Illinois who have been thinking about such matters day and night for decades. As for my contributions, if my predictions about the evolution of Illinois agriculture have not yet been realized, neither have any of them been rendered impossible by events.
This version differs slightly from the original because I clarified a murky metaphor.
It's spring in Illinois again. Farmers have one eye on the weather and the other focused firmly on Washington. It is not a posture which lends itself to clear-eyed vision—unfortunately, since U.S. agriculture is in the process of redefining itself. Since World War II, plenty has been purchased at the cost of increased financial risk to the farmer, instability in the ag economy, and environmental damage on and off the farm. It is an ailing system which requires huge transfusions of federal money to keep breathing.
Typically, the non-farmer indulges the farmer his lamentations of doom as nothing more than what is due the parent, however removed, of Stouffer's frozen gourmet entrees. Lately, however, a certain irritation has begun to sour the city's view of the country. Farming once was viewed largely as the exploitation of a private resource for the larger public benefit. With the growth of environmental consciousness on one hand and the more recent explosion of farm support costs on the other, more people see farming as the exploitation of a public resource for private benefit.
John Schnittker, one of the nation's most respected farm economists, dismisses most farm aid programs as "open ended entitlement programs, like Medicaid." The Schnittkerian view might revolutionize farm policy were it to be shared by the general public. Illinois farm leaders, including new Farm Bureau president John White Jr., are generally agreed that the costs of federal farm programs must drop. But as long as farmers are able to outproduce demand, the only way to curb price-busting surpluses without saddling taxpayers with huge subsidy costs may be some kind of mandatory controls on what is grown or sold.
The implications of such a shift are unsettling. The farm community lumps quotas in the same budgets with cutworms and Federal Reserve bankers, and not merely because of farmers' anarchic past. It was individual farm entrepreneurship, not centralized planning, which has put Illinois's natural resources, technology, and labor into such productive combinations on the farm. But that same entrepreneurial spirit has confounded every attempt at voluntary production limits. The typical grain farmer agrees that production cutbacks to maintain price make perfect sense—for every farmer but himself.
The choice between the individual and the collective good may not be left in the farmers' hands for long. The farm sector's traditional political weight is shifting. Every farmer who leaves the land takes a vote with him. A recent survey confirmed that fewer than a third of Illinois's congressional districts have farm populations of 25 percent or greater. Farmers have been able to exert political influence disproportionate to their numbers. They did so in part because of pro-rural, "one cow-one vote" legislative districting practices. Also, many Illinoisans who are no longer on the farm remain of the farm. Speaking of the tens of thousands of living Illinoisans who've left the farms in the last fifty years, Harold Guither of the University of Illinois ag department told me, "They have a sympathy for and a knowledge of farming that is much different than that of the generation that will follow."
Many members of the displaced farm population work in colleges of agriculture, like Guither, or in farm bureaus, commodity exchanges, and seed and equipment company boardrooms. They constitute a sizable (if unrecognized) and influential body of opinion shaping farm policy. But they are getting old. Today's children are growing up rural but the closest they get to a farm is the subdivided cornfield on which was built their house on the edge of town. Actual farm experience is alien to them, a trend which Guither predicts "will affect the whole question of the future direction of farm policy."
The short-term farm future is likely to be familiar enough. Output of crops per acre will continue to outpace losses of soil productivity due to erosion, although slowly. Farms will keep on getting larger, although not too much larger. There will be less land to farm as cities grow, but not so much less land that people will have to begin worrying about it. The real changes may be economic. Illinois may end up with a dual agricultural system in which the flatter prime land is intensively farmed for cash crops like corn and soybeans by large operators catering to the export trade, while marginal lands are used for the increasingly popular "lifestyle" farms serving local markets for fresh foods.
The answers invented to solve the problems of the past in Illinois farming have worked almost too well; it's the quality of the questions which need to be improved. The issue-facing Illinois agriculture isn't whether to invest in new technologies like genetic engineering but to what ends those technologies should be directed; not whether productivity should increase, but for which crops; not whether people should continue to live on farms, but which farms and why.
In a sense, the emerging debate on the future of farming doesn't deal with concepts of agriculture but with concepts of the future. The increased financial risks of modern cash grain farming have tended to foreshorten the future for farmer and policymaker alike. With no particular vision to sustain it—to maximize production, to keep people on the land, citing the poles of the debate—U.S. farm policy shifts with the weather, with markets, with the ideological currents which swirl in and out of Washington every four years.
Ask what kind of future Illinois agriculture will have, in short, and the answer will depend on how long a future one has in mind. In the short term the problem for the state's farmers will remain how to sell, not how to grow. In the longer term, the shift toward increased productive capacity abroad and political power at home, competition for land, and economic uncertainty, make optimism premature. Given its immense stake in agriculture, the non-farm public will have to take a more conscious role in the process of its reinvention. There is, however, always a fear that the public which has grown accustomed to viewing farming as merely another special interest group, will require some calamity to achieve wisdom. New generations will not only have to think about farms in new ways; they will have to start thinking about farms, period. ●
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