Three challenges in the debate over sustainable agriculture

The rising cost of survival is something society needs to think about as the phrase sustainable agriculture is bandied about in an increasingly bitter debate. There are many challenges as the world ponders its food future.

Here’s three:

Farming is a business. Recent Farmer’s Share data released by the National Farmers Union shows the agriculture producer’s piece of each dollar the consumer spends on food is 19 cents. The other 81 cents goes to processing, packaging and transportation costs.

Out of their 19 cent share, farmers must pay the expenses of running a farm—seeds, machines, fertilizer, fuel—before any profit is realized. Farmers always face the prospect of being one drought or one flood away from disaster.

The food police will tell you farmers need to go back to the practices of the 1950s, when farms were small and the rural population was huge. They would be wrong. Many farmers of that era—like my dad—left the farm because they couldn’t make a living. Was it because they were bad farmers? No. It was because they were spending huge amounts of toil and time to farm small amounts of land. They could not find sufficient incentive to stay in agriculture.

Although small farms still play an important role in agriculture, many farmers seek bigger, more efficient farms to confront the rising cost of survival.

The world’s population is booming. Some maintain the world is headed for a food crisis as societies try to figure out how to feed an additional 3 billion people in the next 40 years. Farmers will have to do much more with much less as the amount of arable land shrinks with a growing world population. Research and technological advances are part of that sustainable equation as society addresses the rising cost of survival.

Which brings me to my third and final point.

• What happens if the next generation ref uses to farm? A sustainable farm to me, is one that can remain profitable for generation after generation while protecting land and water resources. America’s farmers are aging. According to the 2007 Census, the average age of American farmers is 57. The majority of farm operators are between 45 and 60. The fastest growing segment of agriculture is those 65 and older.

Young farmers have a steep hill to climb: Credit is tight, land is expensive. Returns are small, the risks are enormous.

That’s a whole different aspect of sustainability that few critics think about. You can’t live off of love for the land and the love for a way of life forever. Eventually you have to make a profit. We need to find ways to encourage young people to remain in agriculture.

It’s a small price to pay for the rising cost of survival.

Barnett is Publications Director for the Texas Farm Bureau. This appeared on his blog at

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2010-12-09 digital edition

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