Farm Economy State of the Union Address
2nd of 3 parts: A growing interest in sustainable farming

By John Ikerd

On November 9th John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, gave the keynote address to the Tilth Producers conference in Yakima, Washington. His talk, "The Family Farm on the Cutting Edge," provides an incisive analysis of industrial agriculture and the emergence of what he calls "the New American farmer."

We've divided his address into three parts. In part one, Professor Ikerd described the increasing corporate control of U.S. agriculture, which has resulted in exploitative contract farming, reduced farm incomes, rural pollution -- and which will ultimately lead to an increased dependency on imported foods as multinationals abandon U.S. farmers for cheaper labor markets elsewhere.

In part two, Ikerd sees hope in the interest a growing number of Americans have in supporting farming that is good for farmers, animals, communities and the environment.

Part 1, November 27, 2002: The logical consequences of industrial agriculture.
Part 3, December 12, 2002: The emergence of a new breed of farmers.


DEC. 3, 2002: Many consumers, members of the public, seem to agree with many of the economists in this country who argue that we need not be concerned about becoming dependent upon the rest of the world for our food. They don't see anything wrong with a corporately controlled, industrial agriculture, and they are not particularly concerned. As long as the corporations can give them food that is quick, convenient, and cheap, they are not going to ask too many questions. They aren't all that concerned about where their food comes from, who produces it, how it is produced, and what the consequences are for rural people and for the land. Many trust the competitive forces of a "global free market" economy to ensure that the needs of society are met.

However, a growing number of people are concerned about the corporate industrialization of agriculture.

  • They are concerned about what it is doing to the lives of farm families who are losing control of land that has been in their families for generations.
  • They are concerned about people in rural communities who have supported and been supported by those family farms.
  • They are concerned about the low-pay and long hours in the food processing factories that have moved into some of these chronically depressed rural areas.
  • They are concerned about the landfills, toxic waste dumps, and giant livestock feeding operations that pollute the once pristine rural environment with dangerous chemicals, biological wastes, and hazardous stench.
  • They are concerned about the ability of the soil to continue to produce after the topsoil is eroded and it is saturated with chemicals and about the quality of water subjected to similar abuses.
  • They are concerned about the safety of their food and safety of the people who work to produce it.
  • They are concerned about the negative impacts of an industrial agriculture on the people who farm the land, who live in rural areas, who eat the food.
  • They are concerned about those of future generations who will still be as dependent upon the land for their sustenance, their very survival, as we are today.

They are concerned about the sustainability of agriculture.

This growing concern for agricultural sustainability is raising some "common sense" questions about our food system.

  • It asks, how can we equitably meet the needs of people in the present, while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future--not just how can we make food quick, convenient, and cheap?
  • It asks, how can we develop an agriculture that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible-not just how can we make agriculture more economically efficient?
  • It asks, how can we ensure our long run food security-not just our current abundance?

Sustainability asks, how can we sustain a desirable quality of human life on this earth, individually, socially, and ethically--both for ourselves and for those of future generations?

Sustainable farms: The three essentials

Sustainable farming systems must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. All three are essential; more of one cannot offset a lack of either of the other two. The three dimensions of sustainability are not a part of some formal or legal definition, but instead, are a matter of common sense. If the land loses its ability to produce, the farm is not sustainable. If the farmer goes broke, the farm is not sustainable. And if a system of farming fails to support society, it will not be supported by society, and thus, is not sustainable. The economic, ecological, and social dimensions of sustainability are like the three dimensions of a box. All are necessary. A box that is lacking in height, width, or length, quite simply is not a box. A farming system that is lacking in ecological integrity, economic viability, or social responsibility, quite simply is not sustainable.

"A box that is lacking in height, width, or length, quite simply is not a box. A farming system that is lacking in ecological integrity, economic viability, or social responsibility, quite simply is not sustainable."

There is growing evidence that current concerns for the sustainability of agriculture are well founded--that a corporate industrial food system, in fact, is not sustainable. The threats to the natural environment and to the quality of life of farmers, rural residents, and members of society as a whole have continually risen as we have industrialized American agriculture. The same technologies that support our specialized, standardized, large-scale farming systems are now the primary sources of growing environmental degradation. Commercial fertilizers and pesticides--essential elements in a specialized, industrialized agriculture--have become a primary source of growing concerns for environmental degradation and food safety. And, industrialization has transformed agriculture, created for the fundamental purpose of converting solar energy to human-useful form, into a mechanized agriculture that uses more non-renewable fossil energy than it captures in solar energy from the sun.

No one set about intentionally to destroy the ecological integrity, social responsibility, or economic viability of American agriculture. We simply lost sight of the fundamental purpose of agriculture, to meet the needs of people-as consumers, as producers, as members of rural communities, and of society. In our preoccupation with making agriculture more productive, we have taken the thinking out of farming; we have degraded the occupation of farming, and diminished the intellectual, social, and economic rewards of being a farmer. In our preoccupation with increasing economic efficiency, to bring down the cost of food, we neglected to monitor what was happening to the overall quality of life of people. In our preoccupation with increasing production today, we neglected to monitor the ecological legacy we were leaving those of future generations. We don't need a lot of data, facts, or figures to understand what has happened to American agriculture; it's just plain common sense.

Beyond industrialization: What will emerge?

This time of "great transition" is not unique to agriculture. A new era of development is beginning to emerge in virtually every sector of modern society. The old industrial era is dying and a new era of sustainability is struggling to be born. Agriculture is at a slightly different phase of transformation than is much of the rest of society. The corporatization of agriculture is the last gasp of a dying age. However, the same basic forces now emerging to create a new agriculture and a new rural America already are fundamentally transforming much of the rest of the world. And, those who expect to be successful in this new world of the future, in farming or in any other occupation, must be both willing and able to think.

Peter Drucker, a time-honored consultant to twentieth-century industry, says this in his book Post-Capitalist Society:

"Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself--its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world .... We are currently living through just such a transformation."

The thing most certain about the future is that it will be very different from today. The industrial era is behind us, and something fundamentally different lies ahead. Although agriculture is still caught in the grips of industrialization, corporatization is the final phase of the industrial process. Much of the rest of the developed world already is moving beyond industrialization. The giant global corporations of today are but an unfortunate remnant of this past era. They exist not because they are more productive or efficient than other forms of organization, but only because of the economic and political power they were able to amass when industrialization was in its prime. Multinational corporations have lost their usefulness and value to society, and ultimately, must lose their economic and political power.

Noted futurist, Alvin Toffler, in his book Powershift, points out that many forecasters simply present unrelated trends, such as industrialization, as if they would continue indefinitely. But, by simply extending trends, they fail to provide any insight of how trends are interconnected or when and why trends might change. The agricultural press is filled with such forecasts for the future of agriculture--simply extending industrial trends into the indefinite future. Biotechnology and information technologies are presented as nothing more than new tools of industrialization. But, Toffler contends that the industrial model of economic progress is becoming increasingly obsolete, and he talks of a new knowledge-based era of development.

"The old industrial era is dying and a new era of sustainability is struggling to be born. Agriculture is at a slightly different phase of transformation than is much of the rest of society. The corporatization of agriculture is the last gasp of a dying age. "

Drucker, in his book: The New Realities, talks of the "post business society." He states, "the biggest shift-bigger by far than the changes in politics, government or economics-is the shift to the knowledge society. The social center of gravity has shifted to the knowledge worker. All developed countries are becoming post-business, knowledge societies." Toffler agrees that "the most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system of creating wealth, based on the mind." "Because it reduces the need for raw material, labor, time, space, and capital, knowledge becomes the central resource of the advanced economy," he writes.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, addresses future trends in the global economy in his book, The Work of Nations. He identifies Symbolic-analysts as the "mind workers" of the future. They include all the problem-solvers, problem-identifiers, and strategic-brokers. They include scientists, design engineers, public relations executives, investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, real estate developers, consultants of all types-people who earn their living mostly by thinking. Like Toffler and Drucker, Reich believes that future human progress will result from symbolic-analysis, from mind work, rather than routine production work or personal services.

Drucker points out an important, fundamental difference between knowledge work and industrial work. He states that industrial work is fundamentally a mechanical process, whereas, the basic principle of knowledge work is biological in nature. He relates this difference to determining the "right size" of organization required to perform a given task. "Greater performance in a mechanical system is obtained by scaling up. Greater power means greater output: bigger is better. But this does not hold for biological systems. There, size follows function. It would surely be counterproductive for a cockroach to be big, and equally counterproductive for the elephant to be small." He concludes that differences in organizing principles may be critically important in determining the future size and ownership structure of economic enterprises. Other things equal, the smallest effective size is best for enterprises based on information and knowledge work. According to Drucker, "'Bigger' will be 'better' only if the task cannot be done otherwise."

If industrial agriculture is dead, why are there factory farms?

But if the industrial era is ending, why are we seeing the rapid industrialization in some sectors of the agricultural economy, specifically in hog and dairy production? In Joel Barker's book: Paradigms, he points out that new paradigms tend to emerge while, in the minds of most people, the old paradigm is doing quite well. Typically, "a new paradigm appears sooner than it is needed" and "sooner than it is wanted." Consequently, the logical and rational response to a new paradigm by most people is rejection. New paradigms emerge when it becomes apparent to some people, not necessarily many, that the old paradigm is incapable of solving some important problems of society. Paradigms may also be applied in situations where they are not well suited, thus creating major new problems while contributing little in terms of new solutions.

American agriculture provides a prime example of over application of the industrial paradigm. The early gains of appropriate specialization in agriculture lifted people out of subsistence living and made the American industrial revolution possible. But, more-recent technological "advances" clearly have done more to damage the ecological and social resources of rural areas than any societal benefit they may have created from more "efficient" food production.

Industrialization of agriculture probably lagged behind the rest of the economy because its biological systems were the most difficult to industrialize. Agriculture by nature doesn't fit industrialization; it has to be forced to conform. Consequently, the benefits are less, the problems are greater, it is becoming fully industrialized last, and it likely will remain industrialized for a shorter period.

The increasing corporate control of agriculture today is no longer a reflection of greater efficiency or lower cost of production costs for industrial production methods. Instead, it is a reflection of the ability of the giant corporations to enhance their profits by controlling global markets for agricultural commodities. Corporatization brings a century of agricultural industrialization to its logical conclusion, spelling the impending end of the agricultural industrialization process. After corporatization will come something fundamentally new and different. The corporatization of agriculture, thus, creates an opportunity to develop a new and fundamentally better paradigm for farming, a sustainable agriculture.