By now, you have probably gathered that I believe the continued existence of the small, diversified family farm is of utmost importance to our country. Some might argue that, in our globalized marketplace, if agricultural production is more economically efficient in other countries due to lack of subsidies, cheaper labor or whatever, then we should allow them to do the farming and simply import the raw agricultural products.
Well, aside from the direct benefit of production of food and ingredients, American farms and farmers also provide a number of other services that enhance the quality of our lives and our environment.
Farmers using best management practices are very important to us from an ecological standpoint. Although much farmland is being lost to development, around 40 percent of this countrys land is still in farms. That makes American farmers a premier group of stewards of our collective natural resources.
Think about everything that is on farms besides just crops: grasslands, forest remnants, streams, wetlands, wildlife habitat, mineral deposits, the list goes on.
As a matter of fact, only about 46 percent of the total U.S. farmland is in crops. Farmers work to create a living, breathing soil that is not only diverse biologically, but also helps to boost their productivity. If someone is working to repair damaged soil, it is often going to be a farmer.
Farmers help to maintain clean surface water, installing vegetative buffer strips next to bodies of water that help to remove soil and excess nutrients before overland water flows into streams. Vegetative buffers can also provide refugia for beneficial insect populations that help to control pests naturally. Some farmers also use biofilters to absorb nutrients that may have otherwise ended up in surface water. The federal government even provides incentives to help ensure wetlands are preserved on farms so they maintain their natural water-filtering capacity.
In addition to wetlands, the feds provide incentives to maintain and improve wildlife habitat, to promote biodiversity and boost overall environmental quality. And, on top of all this, think of all the carbon that is sequestered by crops and other plants growing on our nations farmland.
Aside from all the actual and potential benefits to the environment, there are many non-food benefits that farms and their managers provide directly to us.
Farms provide for a lot of nature-based recreation; be it hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, bird-watching or four-wheeling, farms provide activities for people who have limited access to other sorts of public spaces.
Farm lands provide for huge aesthetic benefits, i.e., visual amenities. Farms are often quite beautiful (there is a reason people go for Sunday drives out in the country). Despite some developers current penchant for large, labyrinthine subdivisions filled with opulent, nearly-identical homes in various shades of beige, farms help to maintain open green space, often longed for by denizens of cities confined by angular steel and concrete.
Plus, without working farms, we would be seeing a precipitous decline in the life and livelihood of small towns all over the nation. Farmers contribute directly to the socioeconomic viability of rural areas by purchasing supplies, frequenting local businesses and often contributing to the market for fresh, local foods.
Agriculture is a big part of our American identity. No matter how food production efficiencies shake out in the world market, I do not believe that the face of our countryside will (or should) ever be without the presence of good farmers and healthy working lands. Our society at large sees so many benefits from agriculture that we should all be very willing to speak up on their behalf in farm policy conversations, as well as to carefully plan for the maintenance of prime agricultural lands in land use discussions.
As the drafting of the 2007 Farm Bill draws near, take a moment to evaluate the benefits you receive from agricultural lands, and participate in the political process that will allow you to continue to enjoy them. Help our legislators allow farmers to continue doing what they do best, on behalf of all of us.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 19-25, 2006, issue