Redefining ‘agriculture’

Redefining ‘agriculture’

By Bob Sampson, Extension Communications Specialist, U of I College of ACES

URBANA—A new definition of “agriculture” is being created by fresh demands on a broad front, noted Robert A. Easter, dean of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

“Agriculture today is much, much more than the traditional concept of row-crop farming and livestock production,” said Easter. Easter’s comments came in conjunction with National Ag Day observed March 21.

“We need to recognize that agriculture has linkages in urban and suburban communities,” Easter said. “Recently, I was told by a legislator’s aide that ‘we don’t have farming in our district.’ I asked her if there were golf courses and she said ‘yes.’ Well, they do have agriculture.”

Golf courses, commercial nurseries, and city departments that take care of trees are only a few of many services and institutions that make use of research and Extension programs from the U of I College of ACES. And the engagement between these and other nontraditional clients and the college

is increasing.

“At one time, ‘agriculture’ would have been defined by most people as basically row-crop and livestock production,” said Easter. “Today, that traditional definition has been expanded in two ways. First, the original concept is known today as food, fiber and fuel agriculture with expanded uses for its products. Second, our nontraditional clientele constitute a rapidly growing sector. This includes nurseries and golf courses and lawn care, for example.

“Illinois needs to grow and remain competitive in both of these broad areas.”

While Illinois has significant competitive advantages in agriculture, including soils, climate, and transportation, appearances can be deceiving. Easter offered an example used by Juan Enriquez in his book, As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth.

“Let’s look at something as basic as flower production. Where would be the ideal country to grow flowers commercially? It would be a country with a lot of land, cheap labor, fertile soil, warm temperatures and lots of sunshine. Yet, Brazil, the country that fits that definition is not the world’s greatest flower exporter.

“The top flower-exporting country is Holland, a small, fog-bound country in which part of the land is below the level of the North Sea. Why is this so?”

Enriquez explained the key for Holland-and the important lesson for others is knowledge-based services.

“Dutch universities place great importance on horticulture and honor researchers and professors. Holland’s markets trade and deliver a standardized product,” Easter said. “Using knowledge, high standards and entrepreneurship, Holland has surpassed countries with natural advantages.”

To remain competitive in a rapidly-changing, global agricultural market, Illinois must find ways to differentiate its products and become more diverse in terms of the products it offers.

Like many other states, Illinois’ population is growing in urban-suburban areas and declining in rural areas. Between 1990 and 2000, 84 percent of the state’s population growth occurred in six counties—Cook, Will, Lake, DuPage, Kane and McHenry. Only four downstate counties without prisons—Monroe, McLean, Menard, and Johnson exceeded the state’s average rate of growth.

“Clearly, an emerging issue for agriculture and policymakers will be how to move incredible masses of foodstuffs from production centers to consumers,” he said. “This will be especially true in developing nations where the rate of urbanization is dramatic.”

And the developing nations offer great opportunity for Illinois agriculture.

“As nations develop and their economies grow, people have more money to spend on food,” said Easter. “This increases the demand for meat, especially pork. Over the past 20 years, pork consumption has increased by nearly 10 percent in the developing world.

“Who is going to produce the world’s meat supply? Whose corn and soybeans will be used to feed those animals? Can Illinois be a player in this scenario?”

While Illinois has a number of competitive advantages—soils that can absorb nutrients from animal wastes safely and strong soybean and corn production histories—it also has in place what the Dutch used to dominate the flower market.

“We have research expertise at the University of Illinois College of ACES and other state colleges and universities,” Easter said. “We have good producers. What we lack is a clear policy to take advantage of these factors.

“This is, without question, the most exciting period in animal agriculture in my lifetime. The U.S. domestic market is strong and the global market is growing at an unprecedented rate. Can we position ourselves to reap the benefits?”

Doing so will require Illinois agriculture to both focus and diversify as it reacts to a consumer-driven marketplace. A helpful way of looking at the agriculture sector is the concept of a system. Rather than thinking of corn and soybean production on one hand and livestock production on the other, a system approach examines how each can help the other.

“We must find ways to preserve our rural communities and their quality of life,” Easter said. “As high impact research is complex, integrative and expensive, we must be prepared to meet that challenge, too. And we have to streamline our programs to avoid redundancy.”

“This may seem like a tall order to some, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that a small, fog-bound nation that literally reclaims cropland from the sea has emerged as the world’s number one exporter of flowers.”

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