Recession taking toll on agriculture’s infrastructure

Recessions have come and gone in my lifetime. Each one leaves a kink in our chain somewhere up or down the line. Our current ‘economic downturn’, likely the worst since the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s, is likely to take the biggest bite in my lifetime.

Having worked for 25 years at a Land-Grant Institution, I have a biased opinion as to the value of agricultural research and Extension. I’m a traditionalist in that I believe agricultural experiment stations and Cooperative Extension Services — each land grant university has one of each — are important to modern production agriculture.

That noted, I am also a realist and reality is that modern agriculture has grown faster than our land-grant institutions. The infrastructure of our modern agriculture economy is based on very firm, scientific-based knowledge that came from land-grant institutions. As our infrastructure gets more and more sophisticated, we move farther and farther away from our base.

The end-result of the Internet, biotechnology and other modern advancements has led to a gradual degradation of the firm foundation on which agriculture is built. Academicians refer to it as the Land-Grant Death Spiral.

Typically, tax-supported institutions, like our Land-Grant System, feel the brunt of recessions a year or two later than the private sector. While most universities went on with some semblance of business as usual in 2009, thanks to huge infusions of federal stimulus money, most other segments of the economy suffered greatly.

Keeping the doors to classrooms open, research programs staffed and funded and outreach programs downsized in a manageable way has been accomplished fairly well in most states with a combination of stimulus funding and use of surplus funds.

As stimulus money runs out in years 2010-2012, the impact on agricultural research and Extension programs will likely be catastrophic in some states. Already we have seen furloughs of faculty and staff, forced early retirements and staff downsizing — even with stimulus money.

As states try to make it on dwindling tax revenues, a direct result of over 10 percent unemployment and unwillingness of consumers to spend, the competition for funding will shift from brutal to genocidal as schools and colleges within university systems compete for funding. Likewise, competition for equally reduced federal funding for agriculture will be at a new level of ferocity.

It’s easy to say modern agriculture has outgrown its need for a viable agricultural experiment station or Cooperative Extension Service, but is that outlook supported by facts or more an observation driven by the economic reality of the current recession that has us by our collective necks?

I’m not a farmer, but if I was one, I am confident I would sleep much easier at night knowing the high price seed I plant, the high priced crop protection I buy and the ever dwindling water I use are all held to the highest scientific standards possible.

Modern farmers have at their disposal well trained crop consultants, virtually unlimited access to knowledge via the Internet, highly qualified and knowledgeable representatives of various mega-corporations that provide seed, crop protection, fertilizers, etc. etc. I don’t know of one of these people who don’t have the farmer’s best interest at heart. They all do, or they wouldn’t be in business very long.

That said, and regardless of the utmost virtue of all segments of our agri-industry, they are all driven in one way or another by the same thing — profit. Losing one segment of our industry that is not profit-driven — agricultural programs in our land-grant institutions — could have some dire consequences.

We are fortunate in the Southeast to have very strong and active departments of agriculture and farm bureaus. The people who head these organizations are absolutely vital to the long-term viability of agriculture in our region. These organizations also suffer greatly from the current recessionary reality.

The point is agriculture is built on a decaying foundation and has an infrastructure that is greatly challenged by our current recession. Losing any segment of this infrastructure will come with consequences.

I don’t have the answer as to how we can have a strong land-grant system of research and Extension, plus a strong farm bureau and state department of agriculture.

Working together is an over-used, and I believe trite at best suggestion. Agriculture has always worked together. There have been plenty of sibling rivalries over the years and decades, but by and large agriculture has remained one big family.

How we can keep our family together in light of the current economic realities will likely be a key contributing factor to how well agriculture survives, much less thrives in the coming years.

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