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The Future of Farming Depends on the Future of Farm Research

March 7, 2017


Testing soil moisture levels. Photo credit: USDA.

What does the future of agriculture look like? To the extent that many consumers think about this issue it is only a few months at a time – we may be wistfully thinking of that time in spring when asparagus is at its peak, or wondering how the price of milk or eggs may be changing as the economy fluctuates.

Farmers and ranchers are often thinking about the future in terms of years as they plan their harvest and crop rotations, manage their animals, or draw up new business plans. Agricultural scientists think in terms of both immediate needs as well as future needs; and some agroecologists, seed and animal breeders, and other environmental and biological scientists are trying to determine what agriculture will look like 50 or 75 years from now, what challenges or opportunities the environmental and climate landscape will present and what scientific research innovations will be necessary to ensure success into the future.

On March 2, 2017 the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) presented our thoughts about the future of agriculture and agricultural research at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) listening session entitled, “Visioning of United States, (U.S.) Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Production Stakeholder Listening Session Meeting.”

The purpose of this event was to identify research opportunities and knowledge or data gaps as we evaluate research priorities to enhance the long-term sustainability of U.S. agricultural production systems. NSAC’s presentation about innovations in agricultural research are summarized below.

The Future of Farming

In order to develop a clearer picture of the future of agriculture, we first need to take a step back and reflect on who the farmers (and consumers for that matter) of the future will be. 

The farmers of the future will most likely be doing things quite a bit differently – both by necessity and by choice – than the farmers of today. Some questions to guide our thinking about these future farmers include:

  • What types of crops and animals will farmers of the future be growing and raising, and where will they be growing them?
  • What production methods will they be using?
  • What physical limitations and political realities will steer their decision-making?

As the climate continues to change, farmers across the country are feeling the effects of severe weather events, including drought, flooding, and shifting pest and disease trends. We cannot be certain what the climate of the future will be like; however, we do already know that major agricultural growing regions have begun to shift. For example, the U.S. corn belt has slowly been inching north and now expands into Canada.

What this means for the farmers of the future is that they will most likely be growing different crops in different regions than the farmers who came before them. This is significant for agricultural scientists as well because decades of research based on current commodities and growing regions will inevitably become outdated. In order for our research to serve the needs of the next generations of farmers, we must shift our agricultural science and policymaking to reflect the realities of the future.

Without access to plant varieties that are regionally adapted to a specific climate and the disease and pest pressures that come along with it, our farmers of the future will be ill equipped to confront the challenges they will face. That means that today’s plant and animal breeders need to be engaged in long-term research to develop new varieties that take into consideration the interests, motivations, and needs of the farmer of the future – as well as the markets and climate scenarios with which they will be contending.

The Future of Eating

If America’s key growing regions and the future crops of the farmers in those regions are shifting, it is worthwhile to ask: What will the consumer of tomorrow be eating? As consumer demand for organic and locally produced food increases in rural and urban areas across the country, are the farmers of the future equipped with the research innovations that will be necessary to meet that demand?

This was the question that researchers in the Northeast asked themselves as they were trying to determine how regional farmers could meet growing consumer demand for local flour made from locally grown wheat varieties. A collaborative research project, spearheaded by Greenmarket in New York City and Cornell University’s Small Grains Breeding Program (in addition to a number of other organizational and research partners) helped put together the research and market pieces to kick start a nascent grains economy in the Northeast.

Since most wheat used in flour is bred for the predominant wheat growing regions of the northern plains and northwestern United States, farmers in the Northeast who were interested in tapping into the burgeoning demand for locally-produced flour were ill-equipped and lacked the varieties what would thrive in the more humid climate of the Northeast.

This research project, funded in part through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (USDA’s only research program focused solely on addressing the challenges of organic agriculture), worked to develop new or revive heritage varieties that were locally adapted to the specific growing climate of the Northeast, and over the past decade, it has made a significant contribution in revitalizing and scaling up the production of grains in the Northeast.

Policymaking Today for a Better Tomorrow

In order to set ourselves up for a successful, sustainable future in agriculture, we need farmers (and consumers) to be actively engaged in the policy conversations that drive our agricultural research agenda. By using farmer experience and expertise to inform our current and future research priorities, as well as engaging farmers as researchers whenever possible, we will strengthen the quality and durability of our agricultural research and policymaking.

One of the first federal programs that NSAC ever worked to develop was the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE). SARE empowers farmers to conduct on-farm research by providing them with the necessary tools and resources. To this day, SARE remains USDA’s only farmer-driven research program.

SARE grants are relatively small and short-term research projects, but some of the research findings and innovations that have been developed with SARE’s support have profoundly changed the way we farm in this country. Cover crops, for example, began with a small SARE grant several decades ago and has now risen in popularity as a mainstream soil fertility production practice for conventional and organic farmers alike.

Research underpins every aspect of a successful farming business, whether it’s a fifth generation commodity producer looking to add cover crops, or a beginning farmer interested in tapping into the huge unmet demand for grassfed beef. For nearly 30 years, SARE has been at the forefront of innovation in research and extension activities for profitable and sustainable farming systems.

Together, SARE and OREI are the only two federal research programs with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. As Congress begins discussions around the Research Title of the next farm bill, in addition to deliberations about annual appropriations for USDA research programs, these two cornerstone competitive grants programs need to be at the center of those discussions. While there are certainly larger federal agricultural research programs that support more expensive, basic research projects, we cannot afford to lose sight of the people – the farmers and consumers themselves – and what their current and future needs and demands will be.

Onward

It is often said that the research that gets conducted today helps determine the type of food and agricultural system we will have a generation from now. That puts a huge premium on asking the right questions to the right persons.

All farmers, but especially new and beginning farmers, need to be part of the conversation around the sustainability of agricultural production in our country. An understanding of the types of farms that new and beginning farmers are starting today and interested in starting in the future, as well as the economic, policy, and environmental challenges that they are likely to face, are critical to our ability to develop effective agricultural policies for the future.

There will be no future for American agriculture if we do not consider the people that make agriculture possible. It is essential that we better understand the motivations, economic drivers, and political realities of the farmers of the future – those with whom our nation’s food supply and natural resources will be entrusted for decades to come.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Research, Education & Extension


One response to “The Future of Farming Depends on the Future of Farm Research”

  1. […] has the education and training to guide U.S. agriculture into the next phase of crop production. As climate patterns continue to change, both historical farming practices (what crops to grow in what regions) and historical commodities […]

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