Magazine March 2019

A Big AG Problem

By Lauren Waldrip Ward

 

Within 30 years, the global population is expected to pass the nine-billion mark, and we are going to need a big food supply. We need big technology, big innovation, big conservation and big ag. Sometimes, “big ag” is thrown around like an insult. But, in fact, we must keep a large, interconnected agricultural infrastructure, both here at home and throughout the world to provide the food security we need as a nation. And the reality of what that really means is very different from the negative picture painted for many American consumers and politicians of “big ag.”

The average size of the American farm continues to grow – but this is not the result of a handful of large domestic and international corporations buying up farms. It’s about family farmers seeking an economy of scale. An overwhelming 96 percent of Arkansas farms are family-owned, and they are growing as a result of improved farm technologies that allow farmers to harvest more land. And with the enormous costs of farm equipment and other farm inputs, harvesting more land isn’t just possible. It’s necessary!

And those economies of scale and new technologies are helping improve farmers’ stewardship of the land and helping drive sustainability. There are three types of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. In other words: planet, profits and people.

During the past few decades, water use for rice farming has dropped by more than half. Greenhouse gas emissions are down 41 percent, and soil erosion is down 28 percent. Farming remains a risky business financially, with weather patterns, overseas competition and tariffs leave farmers to stretch every dollar during challenging seasons. 

Every rice farm contributes $1 million to the local economy. With Arkansas being the nation’s largest rice producer, it’s easy to see how important their continued operation is to our rural communities.  

Agriculture of any size has always been about community. Neighbors help each other out when needed, pitching in time and resources to help struggling farms and families stay on their land. And our farmers give back to those communities, whether it is fighting hunger with donations to food banks, the role they play in food aid or providing scholarships through specialty license plates and other funding sources.

Nine billion of us will call this planet home by 2050. Agriculture will shoulder a hefty workload to feed the world, a workload shared by farming families and larger, well-coordinated efforts. Technology, innovation and sustainability will help along the way, but it will take a strong, secure agricultural industry to make sure we keep pace with the population.

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Lauren Waldrip Ward serves as Executive Director of the Arkansas Rice Federation and Partner of Campbell Ward Consulting and Communications. Arkansas Rice is the umbrella organization representing all aspects of the rice industry including farmers, merchants and mills that contribute $6 billion to the state’s economy annually.

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