For decades U.S. farmers produced in times of surplus and typically sold for relatively low prices. That situation seems to be changing, says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
Staples, speaking at the Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference Monday said U.S. and world agriculture may be heading into a time of shortage.
“For all my life agriculture has produced more than we needed,” he said. “Now, we are moving from surplus to shortage.”
That change comes with significant challenges, Staples said. For one, farmers “will be racing to follow $2 cotton or to higher priced corn.” And agricultural production will need balance to meet U.S. and international needs.
“We now add one million people to the globe every five days,” he said. Farmers have to provide food and fiber for that growing population. “Agriculture is the keystone for our country,” he said.
To achieve production goals for the next few decades, Staples said farmers and ranchers will turn to technology, research and science to produce more on fewer acres.
“Research is why U. S. agriculture is so productive,” he said. “Science, research and agriculture come together to produce the safest, cheapest and most dependable food supply in the world.” He said U.S. farm policymakers must keep that in mind as they craft ag legislation. “We don’t like being dependent on foreign oil,” he said. “We can’t be dependent on foreign food. Food security and national security go hand in hand.”
The commissioner said agriculture also must work to keep young people on the farm. “The average age of Texas farmers is now 59 years,” he said. “That represents a lot of life and a lot of wisdom.” But he also noted that agriculture needs the next generations to carry on the traditions of hard work and productivity.
And the obstacles they face become more challenging.
“Agriculture is a capital intensive profession,” he said. “And farmers can fight drought, insects and disease pests. But now they also have to deal with political dynamics worldwide.” He said economic uncertainty in Italy or Greece affects markets for U.S. farmers.
Staples said the 2011 drought took a toll on Texas farmers and ranchers. Texas agriculture lost billions of dollars from the worst drought in history and “28,000 wildfires burned almost 4 million acres. And some predictions indicate that (a persistent) La Nina may mean more of the same for 2012.”
He said livestock producers have culled herds but have also looked for more creative ways to feed and water their cattle.
“In a drought, cattlemen can do additional feeding over a short time to get by,” he said. “But they can’t haul enough water.”
He said some ranchers moved “cows and cowboys to other states where they leased land to get cattle through the drought.” He said one rancher indicated that the drought might have been “a growth opportunity. He said leasing acreage may give him the incentive to maintain those new leases and expand.”
Crop farmers are looking for better ways to manage, too. “We need drought-tolerant seed, and improved technology to make irrigation water systems more efficient.”
Those advancements come from research, he said.
He said Rural America knows how to adopt technology and that farmers know “the game is not won or lost in one season. Farmers are prepared for the long haul and they have the perseverance to get them there.”
Staples also commented on the state’s budget shortfalls and the necessary belt tightening from the Texas Legislature.
“The Texas Department of Agriculture lost 40 percent of our general funds,” Staples said. “We are working with private industry to improve efficiency.”
He said if industry provides a service, TDA will not try to duplicate it. “We want to eliminate overlaps,” he said.
Staples said TDA lost 120 positions with the budget cuts and have begun to “cross-train field staff to increase efficiency.”
He said regulatory missions of TDA have not been significantly compromised. “Much of the regulatory work is fee-based,” he said. “We did have to close some seed labs, however.”
TDA has realigned departments to Food and Nutrition, Trade and Business Development and Agriculture and Consumer Protection. The state legislature also moved the Department of Rural Affairs into TDA.
Staples said the Texas economy is recovering with significant job growth. “We’re no longer talking about double-dip recession.”
He did warn against over-regulation from the federal government that could hamper productivity and energy production.
He praised the U.S. Congress for passing free trade pacts. “Trade means jobs,” he said. He expressed concern about troubles with Mexico, Texas’ most important trading partner. “Mexico is having problems,” he said. “It is important to maintain the dynamic border area but the safety and security of farms and ranches along the border is essential.”
He also credited the Texas Legislature for the “best session for Texas landowners.” Key legislation included limitations on eminent domain and derailing plans for a Trans Texas Corridor, a controversial transportation system that would have taken millions of acres out of agricultural production.
Staples told the group that when he left from Austin to travel to College Station his wife told him that she was sorry he had to drive in the rain. “But I don’t think it’s ever bad to drive in the rain in Texas,” he quipped.
He said recent rainfall had put smiles back on many faces but the state needs more. “Until rain fills up the stock tanks, streams and reservoirs the downstream users will not get enough water,” he said. “Moisture is important to the state’s economy.”
Staples said agriculture remains a crucial part of the Texas economy and praised farmers and ranchers for their contributions to the public good. “Agriculture is the reason we’re prosperous today,” he said.