Farming Notes – January 2017 [Duncan Allison]

Farming Notes – January 2017 [Duncan Allison]

Trends – At the beginning of a new year I’m starting with an attempt at listing some of the more significant trends in agriculture. My trends focus mainly on crops as I am much less familiar with livestock but many trends apply to both. We can certainly be proud of belonging to a highly productive and technological industry that has been successful at increasing food production and providing consumers in the US with some of the most affordable food in the world. I suspect there have been few times in the history of farming when there has been so much change and such exciting developments.

Increasing importance of the global market on supplies and prices for crop and livestock products. Over production/supply and high stocks lead to low commodity prices. One example – Milk prices are low due to increasingly productive dairy herds and demand not increasing to meet the increased supply. In the US low milk prices have meant that many small and medium dairies have gone out of business. Since 1986 the number of dairy farms has declined by between 5-9% each year. In 1950 we had 3.5 million dairy farms and in 2012 the number had dropped to only 58,000. In 2012 almost 75% of dairy farms had fewer than 100 cows but produced only about 14% of the nation’s milk.

The business of farming – obvious but long gone are the way of life approach. To survive the producer has to focus on the balance sheet and make use of the best possible advice on all the many aspects of running a farm. Data is becoming increasingly critical to understand how best to influence costs and market returns. How and when to sell or pass on the farm to a family member or members has also become a major challenge for our farmers with average age of 58.3 years (2012 census).  In the census the total number of farmers declined, with the percentage decline more for women than men. More minorities operated farms in 2012, and the number of beginning farmers declined.

Much closer relationship between farm producers and food processors and marketers. Both Baby Boomers (51-69) and Millennials (16-34 year olds) have become much more demanding, requiring assurance not only of food safety but sourcing and nutritional value. Production was driving the economy but now consumption is driving the economy in food and other consumer items. Major companies are aware of the need to have more sustainable supply chains.

Scale today is needed to justify the purchase of the increasingly expensive and sophisticated farming equipment in many if not most farming operations. More and more harvesting operations are mechanized. The shortage of migrant labor for harvesting (and other critical farm operations) is likely to accelerate this process in the high value fruit and vegetable crops still relying on pickers not machines. Robotic milkers are quite common in some EU high labor cost countries.

Infrastructure has become increasingly critical. We have sophisticated, highly competitive marketing and service sectors such as farming equipment, fertilizers, seeds, and companies covering the many different stages of livestock production and the coops and local distributors/retailers. Most if not all these sectors are consolidating in to larger and larger companies able to provide the high level research, development, supply and marketing capability that is required.

Genetics – Breeding with all the new tools available to both crop and livestock breeders have enabled continued increases in production and the more rapid introduction of traits that can protect against climate change, disease and insect attack and improve nutritional qualities in crops and allowed continuous improvements in livestock production. GMO technology has been successful but public opinion has greatly impacted progress. Will CRISPR genome editing suffer the same fate or allow even faster and more dramatic progress?

Precision, technology, software and data are now required to be successful. Autonomous tractors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now have approved operating regulations and over half of the top retailers are already using UAVs.

Sustainable now considered a must for any production. Food marketers need to be seen to be sustainable though standards are still being developed.

Organic – still increasing demand so large farms are now major suppliers but the market is growing and imports are needed to meet demand.

Local – continued interest in locally produced food so major opportunities for smaller producers to supply fresh, high value and value-added products in local markets, stores, restaurants and schools.

Earth worms and cover crops – Luckily cover crops are increasingly being used locally over winter and research has shown that they increase worm populations by providing more organic matter. Research has been demonstrating that earthworms like high organic matter, organic fertilizer, well aerated soil and loam, clay, clay-loam or silty soils. They don’t like tilled soil, dry soil or sandy and heavy clay soil. Earthworm activity also improves water holding capacity, increases infiltration, stimulates microbial activity and facilitates root development by channeling root growth. Cover crops are definitely beneficial.  DAA 1/29/2017