The Midwest Rural Agricultural Safety and Health Conference in Ames, Iowa in mid-November featured reviews of changes in agriculture during the past 40 years, along with predictions about what the next 40 years will offer. Some of the people whom I most respect for their understanding of agriculture and rural life tendered their assessments.
This is the first of two columns about the nearby future of agriculture. Nobody can predict more than a few years anymore.
Dr. Kelley Donham, an international leader in the agricultural medicine field who recently retired as director of Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and is now emeritus professor at the University of Iowa, indicated that farming fatalities are about half as likely as they were 40 years ago, thanks to improvements in injury prevention, farmer health education and machinery design.
Recent reductions in federal funding could slow progress in the field over the next few years, Donham advised. Alternative resources for basic research, such as partnerships with producer and consumer groups and a “research-to-practice” approach are critical in keeping the momentum going toward healthier farming.
Certifying farms as safe environments, annual reviews of farm family health at AgriSafe Clinics, and tying these preventive approaches to reductions in insurance premiums for farm family health insurance, worker compensation costs and farm liability policies are important avenues for continued pursuit, Donham said.
Who are today’s most productive farmers? Highly respected rural sociologists and economists, Drs. Mike Duffy and Paul Lasley of Iowa State University, described today’s farmers and what the next few years offer for agriculture, based on their annual Iowa Rural Life Poll and surveys of farmland values, and national trends in agriculture.
Already, the top 15 percent of farms produce 85 percent of U.S. food, fiber and other consumable agricultural products. The trend toward fewer farmers producing an ever larger share of agricultural goods will continue and could speed up.
These increasingly large operators will own less of the land they farm, but they will gain an ever larger share of the farm product marketplace, Duffy said. The number of small farms with operators who pursue farming mainly as a lifestyle connection to the land continues to increase but their portion of the total agricultural goods produced continues to decline.
Farmland prices? Duffy said the boom in farmland values over the past few years in Iowa and most of the Midwest is reminiscent of the booms that occurred in the 1920s and during the latter half of the 1970s and first couple years of the 1980s. Both eras preceded economic depressions in agriculture.
Now we are in another era of farmland price escalation, or possibly at the high point, Duffy suggested. Farmland prices will probably retract 20-30 percent over the next few years, but any economic depression in agriculture will be gentler than those in the last century.
There are many uncertainties. Duffy and Lasley listed uncertainties to include: climate change, lack of a federal Farm Bill, possible changes in crop insurance and environmental regulations.
There also are issues attributable to GMOs, food safety and lack of access to some markets, as well as farmers being blamed for everything that is wrong and farmers sensing loss of control.
Agriculture in the future will depend increasingly on technology, said Dr. Paul Gunderson. He is past director of the National Farm Medicine Center, the current director of the Dakota Center for Technology-Optimized Agriculture and has headed several United Nations commissions on food and labor issues.
Gunderson said 92 percent of central U.S. agricultural producers routinely use one or more precision agriculture technologies. These might include GPS (global positioning systems) that use satellite communications to guide farming, such as continuous recording of crop yields during harvest; the data enable calculating recommended soil nutrients for all parcels next year to optimize production throughout each field.
There are many precision agriculture technology applications. Gunderson mentioned use of unmanned aerial viewers (UAVs), which are drone aircraft that can fly over pastures to assess the locations and health of grazing animals.
The UAVs can sense the body temperatures, digestive activities, and a host of health indicators by flying close enough to the animals to detect and report them to the herd manager. The herd manager can select and treat animals needing assistance; perhaps in the future UAV robots will conduct the treatments of animals needing veterinary interventions.
Geo-tagging is another technology that has arrived. Gunderson recommended that every farmer carry a cell phone on his/her body so that any person can be located through signal triangulation in case of a reported event needing a response or when there is no response to a requested reply.
Farming is changing. Next week I will offer my views about what the immediate future holds. I will address the issues as a farm producer, a behavioral health specialist, researcher and observer of agriculture for many years. I welcome your thoughts.
Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.