The question for the 1995 farm bill, and the years ahead
boil down to two or three, it seems to me. First, GATT will
require a change in the form of subsidies to ag, and budget
realities will force scale down of payments. How will this be
accomodated? If Repub. and conventional ag hold the line, and
fail to embrace other goals in rural America, and the public at
large, especially clean water and safe food, then support will go
down faster/farther. There are more people in new repub. majority
publicly commited to ending farm subsidies, or at least
significantly cutting them, then defenders of the status quo, who
have about as much hope in the 104th Congress as people who hoped
their would be action following release of the structures report.
Second issue is whether farmers will continue to be
allowed to cause food safety/environmental problems off the farm
as a result of how they farm, and have society accept it as the
logical and proper outcome of a cost-benefit tradeoff. This hides
a truth that is slowly coming out -- big farms can do an excellent
job protecting the environment, advancing biocontrol, and
protecting the health of their workers. Many do. All could.
Some don't. Why? It usually boils down to how much return to
capital you except, the knowledge and values of farm managers, and
how isolated or protected the operation is from neighbors. Did
people notice the post a while back that showed 1% of the chicken
from Denmark has bacteria on it, compared to 25% to 60% for other
European countires, and what, 50% here? Has anyone compared the
cost of chicken in Denamrk versus its neighbors, and calculated
the incremental cost of achieving such low rates of bacteria
contamination? It would be a useful research exercise.
Third, the concentration/geographic distribution of
livestock agriculture has profound consequences on the environment
and rurl communities. The cutting edge issue in the midwest today
is corporate hog farmer, and whether its a good thing, or not.
Manure management, and associated issues, are probably the most
fractious and volatile, from odor, to excessive build up of soil P
levels, to bacteria contamination of local water supplies.
Bigness in animal production comes at increasingly high
environmental costs, or high economic costs. Manure can be
managed safely on large farmers; some do it now, but it takes
time, investment, and increases costs. If confinement hog
operations are held accountable for these costs, they will have a
much tougher time competing with well managed family scale
operations. Big farms can avoid the costs associated with too
much manure in too small an area by keeping the size of operating
units under, say 1,000 sows, and disoersing them over the
landscape, assuring there is ample land between operations.
States could regulate this fairly easily, through a permitting
process that takes into account livestock numbers in the area
surrounding the proposed cite.
A last point re high yields and variability. Intensive
operations work best on very homogenous resource bases,
where everything can be controlled
, hence the success of huge lettuce operations in California where
the grower controls almost everything. But in most of the
country, weather, soil types, pest pressure varies greatly. The
most efficient farms are those that can customize their operations
to make best use of land, etc. Big farms that treat the midwest
like Claifornia have higher yield variability and cost structures
than otherwise the case, becauyse they can not adapt large scale
equipment, need to cover lots of acres, etc with available
machinery, labor, etc. Precision farming techniques may relax
thsi constraint somewhat, but I remain skeptical. Soil as an
inherent capacity to store and hold water and nutrients. This
changes over time as a function of management, and has declined
steadily for several decades across much of American agrioculture.
The gradual loss loss of soil quality is emerging as an issue;
dealing with it will bring to the surface another set of
structural issues and policy tradeoffs.
Sorry about typos, in a hurry.