Who Decides the Future of Farming, Ranching? - March 21, 2011
By Stewart Truelsen
It seems logical that the future of farming and ranching should be determined in large part by America's farm and ranch families. Most of us would be quite satisfied because our nation's farm and ranch families are doing a better job than any previous generation in producing food, fiber and fuel and conserving natural resources.
Knowledge and experience passed from generation to generation of farmers and ranchers and scientific and technological advances have resulted in enormous progress in production agriculture. Why would anyone want to seriously tinker with it, especially when other essentials like energy and health care have far more pressing concerns and uncertain futures?
Yet, the dialogue about the future of farming in newspapers, television and over the internet often seems dominated by people who want to toss out the family farm and ranch system we have in this country in exchange for some radical new concept.
"Radical" is an understatement for some of the plans. In a recently published book, The Vertical Farm, Dr. Dickson Despommier, proposes that farms be relocated from the country to the city and stacked in high-rise buildings where city dwellers live and work nearby.
"The vertical farm is a neighborhood concept couched in futuristic terms, but with homespun intent. The things we trust most are the things we can see for ourselves," he said, adding that locally grown food seems to taste better. In case you are wondering what becomes of cropland in this futuristic scenario, it would be replanted in hardwood trees or simply left alone.
Dr. Despommier is a professor of public health at Columbia University. He created the "vertical farm" concept with help from graduate students in a class on how the environment and human health interact. The idea was a hit with one New York politician who envisioned vertical farms on Manhattan's skyline. He even thought the city could get the funding to build a pilot project. Can you imagine financially-strapped cities using taxpayer money to build vertical farms?
The price tag for a 30-story vertical farm to feed 50,000 people is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars, although the concept is fairly simple according to Despommier, "Stack up 'high-tech' greenhouses on top of each other and locate these 'super' indoor farms inside the urban landscape."
Hydroponic and aeroponic farming already play roles in agriculture, but does it make sense to stop farming on the horizontal plane in rural America and move food production to the cities? Yet, ideas like this persist and get far more attention than the thoughts of real farmers about the future of agriculture.
One thing missing from the book The Vertical Farm is what becomes of our farm and ranch families? It appears as though they would be replaced by farm technicians in lab coats who work for the government, very-large corporations or urban co-ops.
America's farmers and ranchers are hardworking, successful and adapt to change. They adapt to changing consumer preferences and shifts in weather or climate patterns. They are determined to meet the demands placed on them to supply food, fiber and energy. Let's leave the future of farming in their hands.
Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is author of a new book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation's 90th anniversary, Forward Farm Bureau.