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Published February 27, 2012, 09:51 AM

A decade down the field

Change is the only constant in Northern Plains agriculture. Every year, week and hour bring new challenges and new opportunities to area farmers and agribusinesses. Agweek asked a number of officials in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana what they think area ag will be like in 2022.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Change is the only constant in Northern Plains agriculture. Every year, week and hour bring new challenges and new opportunities to area farmers and agribusinesses.

But sometimes the demands of the moment prevent agriculturalists from thinking about the long-term, big-picture outlook for area ag.

What does the future hold for agriculture on the Northern Plains? Agweek asked a number of officials in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana what they think area ag will be like in 2022.

Summing up their conclusions is tricky; the perspectives and priorities of each official naturally differ. But there’s general agreement on several things:

• Technology will continue to evolve and become increasingly sophisticated.

• Family farmers still will have a role. Smaller operations and rural towns most likely will be squeezed.

• Treating the soil and environment properly will remain essential, as will food safety.

• Area ag producers will continue to have a major role in feeding a world with an ever-growing population.

Following are the written comments from ag officials who responded to Agweek’s request to share their thoughts. Some of the responses were shortened for space considerations.

Whither family farms?

Alan Merrill

President, Montana Farmers Union

Farming and ranching in Montana could change dramatically in the next 10 years with advancements in global positioning systems (GPS) and precision applications of pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, with the changes in climate, the crops of today will evolve, and we’ll see an increased emphasis on building healthy soils, the use of biochar and pulse crops that are plowed under to take advantage of naturally grown nitrogen.

While crop and livestock production today remains largely in the hands of independent farmers and ranchers, producers could face a fork in the path they are traveling: corporate farms could dominate or rising input costs could encourage a move to organic farming and more locally grown food being available for purchase by Montanans.

Oilseed crops will play a major role in our future, with the byproducts being utilized in the production of biofuels.

Finally, I believe the need for family farmers to succeed has never been greater. Our continued work and involvement in our communities, state and the world remains of utmost importance.

Economies of size

Andrew Swenson

Farm management specialist,

North Dakota State University Extension Service

Ten years is not that far away. Unless rational reasons can be identified that would alter existing trends, one must assume that those trends will continue for another decade. The major theme in agriculture has been technology and economies of size. Over the last 100-plus years, the increasing capacity of machinery has replaced labor. The result is fewer and larger farms.

We may be approaching a limit to the size of machines because of limits in the transportation system. However, new technologies will continue at a rapid pace as input companies compete with innovative products. Producers will improve efficiencies with further adoption of precision agriculture and new seed traits.

In 10 years, more crop production will be contracted because both producers and food companies wish to reduce their risk. Also, more nonfarming landowners will employ farm management firms and more acreage will likely be custom farmed. The main livestock enterprise in North Dakota, beef cow-calf production, will become more concentrated.

The most limiting factor in small-scale or niche agriculture is gross revenue. It is difficult to generate the income necessary to provide for ever-escalating health care and other family living expenses. It can be done, but not by everyone. It requires dedication, expertise, flexibility and often some combination of frugalness in living costs and nonfarm income. If incomes rise, the demand for local, organic and natural foods should increase as people are more able to pay for the type of production they perceive as more healthy to them and to society.

Sustainability, stewardship

Dan Svedarsky

Director, Center for Sustainability, University of Minnesota-Crookston;

research biologist, Northwest Research and Outreach Center

As a wildlife ecologist guided by sustainability considerations in the broad sense, when I consider the future of agriculture and related land use in 2022, I think long term. What will conditions be in 3022? That’s what sustainability is all about; “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Increasingly, the land resource has to be viewed more holistically as a multifunctional landscape providing not only food and fiber, but healthy watersheds providing clean water for drinking and recreation, wetlands, forests, brushlands and grasslands for wildlife habitat, biofuels, pollinators and carbon traps.

We must, as a society, resist the temptation to skimp on soil conservation practices and to farm all the land, especially the steep slopes and highly erodible and droughty soils, just because corn and bean prices are really good. We must urgently embrace the eventual limitations of conventional energy and phosphorus supplies and engage in strategic land-use planning to protect good farmland from development; and design our landscapes with energy efficiency and healthy living in mind. And finally, we must remember that we are all connected; urban and rural alike, in an interdependent web. How are we doing in our land stewardship? Future citizens and our descendents will be the best judges of our performance.

Corn Belt moves north

Tom Lilja

Executive director, North Dakota Corn Growers Association

There has been a huge investment in trait integration into corn that has been largely positive. What frustrates farmers the most is the steep price increases for these products; 2014 will lead the way as an interesting year as some of these technologies come off patent. Our export markets, which account for 20 percent of corn annually, could be in jeopardy if a means for maintaining international regulatory approval post-patent are not found. We also need to allow for a seamless transition to generic products after patent expiration. The Hatch-Waxman Act for the pharmaceutical industry and data compensation through the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act provide a base experience to help the ag biotech industry sort out these challenges.

My hunch is the ag biotech industry will come up with some solution before the federal government makes them come up with one. Regardless of whether they sort this out or whether the government makes them sort it out, it provides a huge opportunity for better competition in seed and chemical.

The Corn Belt will continue to move north and west and the real opportunities in the next 10 years will be getting average to good returns on marginal ground. GPS and other modern informational systems will aid our producers in this opportunity. The low-cost producer will always win and there will be far more of them (both large and small) on the Northern Plains than in the heart of the Corn Belt in 2022.

Producing more food

Jodie Anderson

Executive director, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association

Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed agriculture change dramatically in South Dakota. Areas that were once primarily pasture used for livestock production have been converted to tillable acres now used for crop production. Technology has played a big role in this transition as drought-resistant crop varieties have become prevalent. Likewise, livestock producers are implementing new technologies from electronic animal identification to using ultrasound technology for pregnancy testing.

While the average age of farmers and ranchers continues to creep up, it also seems more young people are actively pursuing careers in production agriculture and bringing with them an affinity for implementing changes that utilize the new technologies available.

As we look forward to agriculture in 2022, and an increasing awareness of the rapidly expanding global population, I anticipate technology will continue to play a key role in helping farmers and ranchers produce more food utilizing fewer resources.

Ag producers represent less than 3 percent of the population, but we’re ultimately responsible for feeding a global population that’s multiplying rapidly. To do this in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, we must have a regulatory environment that doesn’t squelch innovation so it’s important all of agriculture seeks common ground when possible to speak with a unified voice.

More and bigger markets

Woody Barth

President, North Dakota Farmer’s Union

Agriculture in 2022 will make today’s precision technology the norm for farming and ranching. We will be exploring a whole range of new technological advancements 10 years from now. Diversity and specialized production for specific market desires will become commonplace, but we will never lose commodity production for the masses as food and energy demands will need to be met. Additional niche markets will continue to open up across the world. Our affiliated cooperatives such as Dakota Pride Cooperative will be able to supply end-market products to consumers in the United States and around the world. Product identification from place of production to market will be desired and premiums will be paid to those who accept the extra work to track their production. Genetically modified seeds or other seed enhancement will help guarantee and increase production levels and allow for nontraditional growing areas to diversify crops that they currently grow.

With the market growth, there will be more opportunities for the younger generation to come back to family farms and ranches to make a good living.

All in all, the agriculture industry should prosper and enhance the rural economies across this nation. North Dakota family farmers and ranchers will be a vital part of it.

A role for the smaller guys

Meredith Redlin

Chair, Dakota Rural Action

Neither the trend toward increasing farm consolidation nor the trend toward very small scale, direct marketing show any indication of disappearing in the next 10 years. However, both are driven by different forces. Agricultural consolidation, which brings increasing farm size and greater reliance on industrial processes, continues to be driven through expansion of the agri-technology sector and the ongoing need for economies of scale. Organic commodity production, as well as farm direct sales through farmers markets, farm-based processing and specialty production of meats, fruits and vegetables, is driven by a strong and growing consumer movement which variously draws on health, energy and biodiversity values for its strength.

Perhaps the biggest concern in the next 10 years, however, will be the tenuous situation of mid-sized agriculture and, consequently, of the social and economic viability of our small towns, particularly in low population areas. These farms and communities are not ideally situated to be promoted by either trend, sadly — the economics of transport to market, access to inputs and increasing costs place mid-sized farms at greater risk in the industrial trend as they don’t have either ideal economies of scale nor do they have financial return from farm price supports equivalent to that of their larger counterparts. Small-scale and specialty production relies on adequate consumer market size for development and efficient transportation to keep food and product costs affordable — many of our mid-sized farms are in remote areas that lack population density or infrastructure development for suitable access to those markets.

It’s important that we both plan and push for agricultural policy that supports all of the diversified levels of agriculture, now and in the next 10 years. As a beginning, we can advocate for the CRP land transfer option, to help new and mid-sized farmers obtain land for production at critical mid-sized levels. In addition, new land access policies, meshing small production in unused or unusable acreage for industrial production, promotes both land access and encourages diverse forms of production across our rural spaces and communities. Every farm, of any size, has a unique contribution to make in the re-emergence of agriculture in our nation, whether through energy sustainability, food production, biodiversity retention or land conservation. Our 10-year goal should be to assist growth and stability for all farmers, and land access is a reasonable first step.

Tech, biofuels, regulation

Jeff Hamre

Executive director, North Dakota Soybean Growers Association

My thought for change is certainly more electronic technology as far as use of satellite imagery, GPS positioning, and machinery usage of each. I believe we will see more expansion of our varieties and hybrids to include multiple traits to counter various pests whether they are insect, disease or environmental anomalies. Chemical and fertilizer usage will be so targeted there will be little or no waste of inputs.

I see more biofuel production, from not only our major crops and their byproducts, but also more uses from those crops being developed and less from historical fuel resources. The expansion of diverse crops that are extremely high in oils that grow on nontraditional farm lands will also be promoted in countries with little or no field production as we now know it.

More regulations in all agricultural sectors is inevitable and we as agricultural leaders need to continue our mission to promote agriculture as the provider of food for the world and to re-educate on a constant basis the importance we have.

‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’

Scott VanderWal

President, South Dakota Farm Bureau

In my view, the old saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” applies well to the issue of technology in agriculture. Even 15 years ago, very few people thought we would be using auto-steer, variable-rate application of seed and other inputs, and controlling center pivot irrigators with cell phones. The ability for a combine operator to remotely control a tractor pulling a grain cart is now also available. Efficiency in terms of time, crop inputs and energy usage is improved greatly by the electronic technology we have available.

The agriculture industry will continue to take seriously our moral and ethical obligation to do our best to take care of the land and animals entrusted to us. Efforts to produce more with less will continue at a feverish pace in light of the need to roughly double crop yields by 2050 in order to feed the projected 9 billion people who will inhabit the earth by then. Land area available for growing crops and animals will continue to decrease, so increasing efficiency is the only way to meet this goal.

There is also room for niche markets, such as organic production and other specialty products. However, production of the main commodities most likely will continue to be done by larger and more consolidated operations due to economic forces. The already monstrous amount of capital needed to operate a farm will no doubt keep getting bigger, and we will need to be innovative in our efforts to keep young people coming into our industry.

There is currently a huge debate in our country and across the world about food safety and how it is produced. Our industry will have the opportunity to bring the country together, as everyone has a common interest in food. Our efforts to unite producers and consumers around a common theme of safely and responsibly feeding the world will be incredibly important.

The role of wheat

Randy L. Englund,

Executive director, South Dakota Wheat Commission

You can’t predict the future, but you can certainly look at trends. A major trend that concerns the wheat industry is declining wheat acres and production in the North and South Dakota and the entire U.S. Much of this is the result of dramatic differences in yield growth trends between wheat, corn and soybeans. Yield advances in corn and soybeans can be attributed to the private investment in genetic research and biotechnology.

Recently, there is increased emphasis on development of transgenic wheat. Several private companies are expanding investment in wheat variety development in the U.S. Because of the high costs of deregulation, private companies will look to develop a vast array of traits (stacked) in wheat seed such as drought stress, nitrogen use efficiency, disease and pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. Biotechnology will make a significant contribution to changing the competitiveness equation by increasing wheat yields. This would encourage wheat in crop rotations.

While these advances appear more beneficial to larger farms, it may provide opportunity for niche markets. Whether it be nonbiotech grain or perhaps a bio-engineered wheat with specific end-use quality characteristics or human health benefits. There is also a growing trend among U.S. millers to contract with farmers to grow designated varieties to improve milling economics, and functional properties essential in meeting processing and customer needs.

With all of this, we are also seeing society (consumers) placing greater expectations on agriculture to address concerns about climate change, increasing energy costs, input costs, conservation, food safety, health and nutrition. We will need to increase productivity to meet future nutritional needs while decreasing impacts on the environment, including water, soil, habitat, air quality and climate emissions, and land use.

Global economy a big key

Doyle Johannes

President, North Dakota Farm Bureau

One of the biggest questions facing the future of agriculture is the financial stability of economies around the world. With the global economy we deal with in agricultural exports, unstable financial concerns can totally disrupt the movement of food and fiber around the world.

If the earning power of the working class people in developing countries (Asia) continues to improve, there will undoubtedly be increased demand by them to improve the quality and quantity of their diet.

Obviously, if this scenario plays out, there should be an increased demand for what agriculture in North Dakota produces. It could also provide markets for more specialized produce and opportunities for producers to meet these demands on a smaller scale.

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