Disappearing Harvest? (AG Pulse 2002)

By Cocheo, Steve | ABA Banking Journal, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Disappearing Harvest? (AG Pulse 2002)


Cocheo, Steve, ABA Banking Journal


Even while the government spends billions to keep farmers in business, a University of California economist argues that America's natural evolution is away from agriculture. And there's darn little, he says, anyone can-or should-do to stop it.

"O beautiful, for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Upon the fruited plain!"

Katharine Lee Bates

So says one of the key stanzas of "America the Beautiful," sung by nearly every schoolchild. To which agricultural economist Dr. Steven C. Blank of University of California at Davis might respond:

Get over it. skip the waves of grain and the fruited plains. America doesn't belong in commodity agriculture anymore. The ag land of the future will be golf courses, nurseries, and turf farms.

Blank, extension economist in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at UC-Davis, first made significant waves in agricultural circles with the 1998 publication of The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio [Quorum Books] and he has been stirring up the ripples caused by his book since.

Blank staked out his argument without any shilly-shallying in the very first paragraphs of the very first chapter of his book:

"America's unsurpassed ability to produce plentiful and inexpensive food is coming to an end. The signals are all there, the economic trends are in position to bring about this inevitable conclusion. America, 'the world's breadbasket,' is currently producing at its peak, but it is going out of the food business.

"What could cause such a dramatic turn of events? No, Americans are not all going on a crash diet at the same time. No, we are not going to lose some war, real or economic. In fact, winning the Cold War is a small part of the push that will put an end to the world's most efficient agricultural industry. In the simplest terms, the production of food and other agricultural products will disappear from the United States because it will become unprofitable to tie up resources in farming and ranching. This means that we will voluntarily leave agriculture behind in favor of better opportunities--a process that has been going on since American history began. The completion of that process was not visible before. It is now.

To the veteran farmer--or farm banker--these are words that can chill when they are first heard, and appear at the first to defy logic when considered more closely. The makers of buggy whips and whalebone corset stays, of course, once thought themselves indispensable, too, but, the farmer and the ag lender would argue, they didn't deal in the stuff that people eat, after all. And didn't Washington just effectively undo the Freedom to Farm concept and reinvent the old price support concept in the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act?

If Blank is right--and his book makes a convincing case for the natural evolution of U.S. agriculture away from commodity crops and husbandry--the first is besides the point, and the second is only a speed bump. Blank acknowledges that American farmers--and, frequently, the American politician who catered to them--will see a major shift in his business life in later years and that his descendants' lives will likely have little or nothing to do with farming. On the other hand, he notes, American agribusiness interests, such as food processors, will see little change, other than in sources of raw material, because Americans will continue to eat. The implications for the banking Industry--an industry for which agricultural lending continues to represent a major source of business--are significant. To explore these issues further, ABA Banking Journal interviewed Blank in early October. The following are edited highlights of that discussion.

ABA BJ: How did someone in your business--being an agricultural economist based in a cooperative extension unit--come to make the prediction that the business that, effectively, gives you your livelihood was going to go away? …

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