Charting a future for agriculture


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Making predictions is a notoriously dicey proposition in the world of agriculture.

In a business where it’s often said, 15% is up to farmers and 85% is up to Mother Nature, the future can be deeply uncertain. If COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s the fact society can be flipped upside down in the blink of an eye. Agriculture isn’t excluded from that.

But what could agriculture look like 20 or 30 years, or even a half-century down the road? Many tangible realities of agriculture today were little more than trends of yesteryear. And signs may offer hints of what the future holds.

Factors such as climate change, automation, and market share consolidation have to be considered. So do farm industrialization, cultural shifts away from farming, lab-grown foods, indoor farming, population growth and more.

Many trends represent challenges, said Marie Burcham, policy director at the Cornucopia Institute, which is based in Viroqua. It will be up to the agricultural community and the nation to decide if and how to tackle emerging issues.

“You could take your pick on whether you’re going to be a pessimist or an optimist,” Burcham said. “(The future is) probably going to land somewhere in the middle, as things tend to be.”

“I think the million dollar question is: how many farms will there be and how large will the farms be?” said Andrew Stevens, an agricultural economist and lecturer at UW-Madison. “And the second is: who will be doing the work and who will own the farm?”

Agriculture has been trending toward larger, corporatized and industrialized entities for decades and that trend looks to continue in the foreseeable future.

“There seems to be that trend towards consolidation or monopolization, and we haven’t really been seeing too much pushback against that,” Burcham said. “The industry is very corporate friendly and less so towards small community scale farms, even though these farms make up the bulk of the farmers in the U.S.”

Much of this can be attributed to economic and political forces that favor this model, but technological advancements like automation and a cultural shift away from farming as a lifestyle also play a part

Fewer young people have the desire or capital to break into farming and, with the development of mechanized labor, there may be less of a need for human workers as a general rule.

Genetic improvements to food production can be revolutionary, but they won’t be eye-catching like self-milking cows, AI-operated tractors and robotic farm equipment that’ll likely dominate the farms of the future.

“We will get a lot more automation,” said Paul Mitchell, director of the Renk Agribusiness Institute at UW-Madison. “Agriculture is — to be frank — there’s a lot of jobs that are hard on people if you have to do it by hand. It wears your body out and it’s also dangerous.”

Still, Stevens noted that sectors of the ag economy will remain in human hands. He pointed to specialized crops, such as berries, where harvesting by hand remains much more efficient than automated alternatives. There’s also likely to be a premium placed on organic niche farming or non-lab grown food products, which’ll have a robust customer base to cater to.

“There will be a niche market for these sort of specialties,” Mitchell said. “I could see farming going that route: a bunch of our food will be produced in these larger, highly productive, highly efficient, highly managed operations, and then there will be a group that will want something different.”

The predicted death of family-owned farms can be overblown, Mitchell said. Culturally, agriculture is becoming more isolated and specialized so it has less social imprint. The average age of a farmer continues to climb, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t young people interested in running a farm.

More often, they just lack the personal connections and capital to do so, Stevens said, and government programs can help bridge that gap. Plus, much of farming is a matter of local connections and knowledge closely tied to the earth. That’s something no off-site corporate giant can emulate.

Mitchell said it isn’t likely to happen in his lifetime, but a full-scale transition to plant-based meat products seems inevitable and he said it wouldn’t be unusual to see 40-60% of the industry dominated by lab-grown alternatives in the coming decades.

Stevens echoed that point and speculated that, by leaning into natural market pressures and upping prices, it’ll incentivize people to buy lab-grown alternatives over “normal” meat products.

Climate change looms large over these trends, Burcham said. As temperatures rise and environmental conditions grow increasingly dire, it’ll be incumbent on the world’s agricultural centers to address the issue — whether that’s curbing detrimental byproducts of food production or recuperating areas lost to climate change.

“Farmers think about climate change. You’re going to see different machinery, different plant varieties and breeding for warmer weather. They will change when and how they plant,” Mitchell said. “Mitigation strategies are going to be provided to them by the industry.”

So far, larger industrialized farms and ag corporations have shown little interest in addressing their role in accelerating climate change, Burcham said, while they’ve actively fought renewable or sustainability measures for the sake of short-term profit.

If anything, this illustrates why maintaining a healthy economy of small, community-minded farms is so important, Burcham said. Smaller farms have the willingness and know-how to mitigate climate change on their properties, while larger, consolidated farms typically lag behind in these areas.

This and water shortages could tie into vertical farming and indoor farming, where agriculturists have more control over water, energy and land usage, but Burcham, Mitchell and Stevens all agreed indoor or vertical farming is unlikely to progress much beyond niche operations.

In a world where the most vital resource, sunlight, is also the cheapest and readily available, old-school farms on volume acreage will remain supreme.

Population growth also looks to be an issue of focus — namely, how to feed a projected 9.7 billion people globally by the year 2050. Michell noted this will incentivize farms to be more efficient and produce higher yields per acre, although the onus won’t be on the United States, but other agricultural giants like Brazil and China.

Despite being formidable producers themselves, on a per-acre basis, these countries yield 40-60% less than the United States. Coupled with establishing transportation and roadway infrastructure to move agricultural output, Mitchell said, it’s up to the United States’ rivals to play catch up in the coming decades, not so much the United States itself.

As for Burcham, the question isn’t how do we grow more, but what do we grow and how do we use it? There’s no question that farms — small or large; organic or nonorganic — perform very well in the United States and the country features a agricultural machine unrivaled in human history.

However, they said, the average person’s diet remains deficient, there’s exorbitant food waste and international communities remain victimized by inhumane corporate practices. What is needed, Burcham said, is a push for a whole new model of producing, transporting, distributing and consuming food products.

Then, the world and humanity at large will benefit.

“We have farmers who, when the pandemic hit, destroyed their crops and their livestock because they had no place to slaughter or processes due to infrastructure breaking down. That infrastructure was not made to scale. It was industrial scale,” Burcham said. “These industrialized food systems are always pushing, ‘Oh, we need these conventional food systems to feed the world.’”

“It’s a lie,” they concluded. “It’s an absolute lie. So something isn’t working now and we can fix it. It requires a sort of sea change in agriculture.”

By Douglas Neese
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