Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The key to rural economic development, sustainable agriculture

This is the first in a series of quest entries of the NSAS blog featuring speakers and presenters for the upcoming Healthy Farms Conference

By Kevin Fulton

Rural areas across the country have seen steady population declines over the last 70–80 years. Census reports of most rural Nebraska counties substantiate this, and in many cases this decline has been drastic.

Much of this population loss can be attributed to a shift in agricultural practices that moved us toward an industrial model. This took both people and animals off the land. Industrialization created an environment in the farm sector where it became more desirable to own your neighbor’s land rather than have the neighbor and his family around.

For years, leaders in rural America have worked to reverse this trend or, at the very least, slow it down. Many different strategies and incentives have been implemented. Ironically, many rural economic development plans center around the recruitment of large entities to develop industrial sites as a way to generate more jobs and bring more people to the community. Examples in recent years here in Nebraska include the development of ethanol plants and large CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) in or near our rural communities. But is this really the best strategy? Why do we promote more large industry in small rural communities when this led to our demise in the first place? Does the boom-to-bust cycle that many of these industries go through create a stable economic base for rural communities that is conducive to long-term growth? We have also seen many communities torn apart by the dissension that is created when bringing in certain types of industry that have a history of negative consequences, such as creating environmental contamination and odor problems. Many times this actually hinders the development of balanced long-term economic growth.

The best solution to this problem is to bring both people and animals back onto the land. This will create prosperity for farmers and the communities around them. Is this really a practical solution? We are already seeing this happen in some areas with great success, but can it work on a widespread scale? The answer is YES. Not only would this improve economic welfare in rural areas, but it would also alleviate many of the environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture, improve animal welfare and rebuild trust with the consumer. Sustainable farming and food production systems represent the model that will lead us down this path to prosperity for rural communities and provide a healthy food supply for the population. Critics say this would not only be impractical but also disastrous, claiming that it would lead to massive food shortages and starvation. These scare tactics simply have no foundation. To the contrary, if we do not move in a different direction, our industrial food system will lead us down a path of self-destruction. The warning signs are already present as we are currently moving down that pathway.

I hope you will join us at the 2010 Healthy Farms Conference, where I will be discussing these issues along with providing real solutions on how and why we must continue to create sustainable farming systems that will allow us to eat better, improve the environment and revive rural economies.