President, American Farm Bureau Federation
Bob Stallman is a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas. He was first elected as United States Farm Bureau Federation president in 2000 and was re-elected to his fourth term in January, 2006. He was president of the Texas Farm Bureau from 1993 until 2000. He was an honors graduate from the University of Texas before returning to his family farm operation. He serves on the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade which advises the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and U.S. Trade Representative as they conduct they participate in the Doha round of international trade negotiations.
The policy position of the Farm Bureau is that, until major progress on fair trade in agricultural products is made, we want the provisions of the 2002 farm bill extended. Achieving everything our farmers and ranchers want from Congress and the Bush administration won’t be an easy since farmers comprise less than 2 percent of the population and there are more lawyers in Congress than farmers. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “A country man between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.” Those of us in agriculture have a lot of questions to answer in order to chart a course for agriculture and work with Congress.
Beyond the farm bill debate is a bigger question: Can American agriculture focus on a long-term vision for the future? Or, are we spending too much of our time and energy on just getting through the short-term?
For decades, agriculture has relied on our farm program as a sturdy bridge that gets us to the other side of the river and moves us down our country road. But today, that bridge is beginning to sag under the weight of change. We cannot afford to wait until that old bridge collapses and we end up swimming for our lives. We not only have an opportunity…but an obligation…to start building a new bridge.
I am a rice and cattle producer from Texas. I know about farm reorganization, payment limits, high costs of production, low prices, uncooperative weather and lack of producer market power. Having said all that, I believe all of us with an interest in agriculture have to ask ourselves some tough questions for the future … questions that may challenge our traditional views.
We have undertaken that challenge within the American Farm Bureau. In 2003 we assembled a task force that was given the assignment of assessing what American agriculture will look like in 2019…the 100th anniversary of the Farm Bureau…and then answering the question of “What should American agriculture look like to be productive and profitable at that time?”
Much of what I’m going to talk about borrows from the group’s deliberations and conclusions. A common misperception is that the number of farms continues to dramatically decline. However, the 2002 Census of Agriculture shows the decline slowing to a crawl in the 1990s with the number stabilizing at roughly 2.2 million operations. The number of small farms is increasing, the number of large farms is increasing, but those in the middle are declining. These producers either increase in size to become more efficient or get smaller in order to seek off-farm income opportunities. The trend is clear – most farm operations are increasingly dependent on off-farm income.
The average farm household income for 2004 was $81,480 and estimates are that this number will rise to $83,660 for 2005e. Those numbers are higher than average U.S. household income, making it harder to defend our farm policies both to the public and to Congress.
Here’s another trend to consider: In 2002, just 389 farms accounted for 10% of total agricultural output in the US. Only 34,000 operations, including these 389, or 1.6% of total number of farms, accounted for 50% of the output. It takes the remaining 98.4% of farmers to produce the other half.
World trade is increasing. In 1970, world trade in goods and services was less than $500 billion. Today, that trade accounts for almost $10 trillion. U.S. agriculture exports about 1% of the total.
If you convert those exports into their acreage equivalent of corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodities and then take the meat shipments and convert the feed needed to raise those animals into an acreage equivalent, you get a big number – 75 million acres. That’s equivalent to the area harvested in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee combined.
More competition will come from the areas of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, as producers improve infrastructure to take advantage of new market opportunities that did not exist under authoritarian rule.
And then there is China. Experts are predicting that the next great global conflict will be between China and the United States, but the conflict will be economic as opposed to military. While China is a large net exporter, it is also becoming a consumer society. In 1990, there were only 29 refrigerators per 100 households in China. By 2001, that number had exploded to 82 refrigerators per 100 households. Consumer food purchasing and the entire marketing chain are changing in this country of more than a billion people.
Farmers need new technology to enable U.S. farmers to compete in the face of globalization. Yet the trend in public funding of agriculture research has been flat and even declined in real terms. The degree to which agriculture is embracing available new technologies is incredible. Farmers have adopted the internet, global positioning systems, auto-steering, biotechnology, and many others technologies that enable higher production from fewer producers at a lower cost. If the history of technology is a guide, this is trend will continue.
At a time when farmers need increased research, they are in a position of defending farm support payments. Those payments have continued to be capitalized into land prices and rental rates. Program benefits have continued to accrue to land owners.
Commodity support payments are an increasingly difficult sell. With each successive generation, citizens are further removed from having direct knowledge of modern production agriculture. Without that understanding, they have less incentive to care enough to be politically sympathetic to farmers. In fact, this lack of knowledge leaves them susceptible to misinformation provided by those who are philosophically opposed to modern agriculture.
It is difficult for citizens to understand the size of support payments – and their real importance to many full-time farming families in the middle. We in agriculture need an effective way of selling the importance of America’s public investment in agriculture. We must find a way to reverse this growing skepticism about crop support payments and at the same time make sure the public understands how essential it is to our nation’s future that we ensure the future competitiveness of American agriculture.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.