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Roy Smith: The future of agriculture

A
few weeks ago there was a program on Iowa Public Television that I found
very interesting. It had to do with the proliferation of microbreweries in the
state. I am not a beer connoisseur or expert, but I do occasionally drink one
when I get thirsty. The focus of the television program related to the notion
that giant multi-national companies have taken over most of the brewing
industry. This has left consumers with very little choice when it comes to
selecting suds that suits their taste buds.

In
the early days of this country, almost every town of any size had its own
brewery. Larger cities may have had several. The products of these small
establishments had unique tastes and qualities. As consolidations took place,
the selection of products available became less and less. Today the flavors of
these mass produced products is uniform worldwide, but they may not appeal to
many possible customers. Hence the development of micro-breweries which cater
to the taste of the populations in diverse communities. 

In
1990, Sharon and I took a trip to Europe. There we discovered that the concept
of community breweries still exists. In the two weeks that we toured Germany
and Austria, I experienced a wide variety of beers. The only one I did not like
was in Salzburg. The educational television program mentioned earlier indicates
that people who are attempting to recreate the community brewery concept in
Iowa are meeting with considerable success. You can now experience beers brewed
in such exotic locations as Sioux City and Iowa City. I plan to make a trip
later this summer to research the products originating in Ames.

As I watched the TV
show, I thought about how much the agricultural seed industry consolidation has
paralleled that of the brewing industry. When I was growing up almost every
locale had its own hybrid corn brand. In my county, it was called Steckley’s
Hybrids. The plant was located at Weeping Water, Nebraska and the seed was
grown within a few miles of the plant. On my office wall, I have burlap bags
that once carried Field’s Hybrid corn and McNielly Hybrid corn, both raised and
processed at Shenandoah Iowa. 
   

My neighbor informed
me last week that he has decided to quit being a dealer after a small regional
company he sold seed for was bought by a multi-national company that is
discontinuing his former brand. My dad was his father’s first seed customer in
1948. It is the end of a 62-year relationship. 
   

More important than
economics, the ended relationships are the narrowing of the choices available
to farmers. Not all farmers have the same needs when it comes to selecting the
genetics of the crops they will grow. However, by the time a company adds Bt,
RR, LL, and other genetically engineered traits to the basic genetics of
hybrids and varieties, they are limited as to how many different choices of
genes they can offer. 

Maybe just as
important, the alterative they decide to sell may be chosen by someone far
removed from the growing conditions on farms in certain specific areas. This
could also lead to wide distribution and planting of genetics that will be
susceptible to diseases and pests that could destroy huge acreages of crops. We
saw the results of this problem in the Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic in
1970. As the seed business is taken over by multi-national companies, the
selection of genetics by farmers becomes narrower.  
    

I keep thinking that
sometime there will be a movement in the seed industry similar to that of the
beer industry. A renegade plant breeder will develop hybrids that have diverse
traits but will not be genetically engineered. They will be produced to sell
much cheaper than the $300 per bag seed now becoming common in the industry. 
 
 

Do not get me wrong.
I like the genetic engineered traits that I have available to select from.
Roundup Ready corn is an important tool on my farm for controlling sandbur in
no-till cornfields. However, I do not feel that I need the triple-stacked
traits that I am being pushed toward by the industry. Giving up genetic diversity
to get traits that I do not need does not seem like a good trade off!
 
  Maybe I am being simplistic in my thinking. After all, plant breeding is
a lot different than brewing beer. However, there are some parallels to the
structure of the business. I can see other industries where niche markets have
sprung up after the multi-national companies have become dominant. Just like
the micro-breweries, these small businesses will never take over the industry.
   

However, they may
offer farmers choices that the big companies do not, at competitive prices that
will be attractive to many producers.

By the time all of this happens it may
be too late to affect my farming operation. However, it will be interesting to
watch from the sidelines to see if my hunch is right.   

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