The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) sees a future of decline for the world of agriculture. Over the next 10 years, the nation's farmers must step up to the plate to prevent this decline. For this reason, NCGA organized the Future Structure of Agriculture Task Force.
Last year, the Task Force set out to study the possible decline of farming communities in the coming decade. The results of that 20-page report, Choices in the Evolution of Corn Belt Agriculture, have been released and are available from the NCGA.
"What growers need to understand," said Task Force Chairman Bill Horan, a grower from Rockwell City, Iowa, "is nothing is guaranteed. The nation's corn growers must expect constant whitewater in the years ahead. Some in agriculture may not like the interdependence between growers and their customers, but the tradeoff of exchanging independence for interdependence is a lot better to today's farmer than reliance on the government."
Horan went on to discuss the demographics facing commodity agriculture. "Right now, the large, family-owned farms are producing roughly 90 percent of the food supply. That's only 10 percent of the farms in the nation," he said.
"These farms are the engines keeping agricultural exports and bulk markets, like feed and ethanol, globally competitive," continued Horan. "With new technologies on the horizon, we can only expect these farms to get larger. But, value-added agriculture has evolved to deliver high quality, consistent specialty products to more demanding consumers."
Horan also stated growing these products can open new markets to both the large farms and the small, independent farms, but in most cases, they must give up some of their traditional independence and become part of a 'product alliance' to tap these markets.
The report not only focuses on the challenges facing corn growers in the 21st century were addressed, but also provides some solutions for today's growers to face those challenges.
Horan said one solution for growers to consider is pharmaceutical farming. "It's a prime example of how high-value ag 'clusters' could form in rural areas," he said. "Pharmaceutical farmers can foresee multiple community spin-offs from the venture."
The report also cites certain types of biotech corn as an example of this. "One type that is currently under development in contained conditions can reduce the cost of a cystic fibrosis drug fourteen fold," said Horan. "The manufacturer of this medicine has said once it has been approved, thousands of acres of farmland will be needed and that benefits the farmer."
High-value food and feed contracts are another option for growers. "We've had a couple of things happen recently that increase the value of this option," he said. "The aftermath of StarLink has triggered industry-wide efforts to improve outlets for identity-preserved grain. Since Sept. 11, the United States is striving for a more secure domestic food supply – and these contracts can help achieve that."
Finally, said Horan, closed-loop co-ops can bring back vertical integration to rural communities, which could be particularly helpful in the western grain states, which benefit from fewer processing options than states in the east.
"The Dakota Growers Pasta Company is a great example of this," he said. "This co-op was funded in the early '90s out of the frustration of North Dakota growers. The frustration stemmed from the fact two-thirds of the nation's durum is produced there, but is milled out of state. By integrating production and processing, they have been able to turn a profit every year of their existence."