Let me start off with two provisos: 1) I’m not an economist in any way; 2) I did not vote for Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton. With those out of the way I pose a question. If Mr. Trump does follow through with actions against TPP and against NAFTA could it be a good thing for small-scale or alternative agriculture?
John Dillard, Farm Journal columnist, wrote that “Agriculture is heavily dependent on trade to boost commodity prices. Trump’s opposition to TPP is troubling. Furthermore, if he follows through on his promise to scrap NAFTA and commence trade wars, it could be disastrous for agriculture on a level we haven’t seen since the Soviet grain embargo.”
I mean, if we’re talking industrial agriculture supported by subsidies and price protection, then his threats to these agreements does spell some problems for agriculture. If agriculture is defined as something else, I think there may be opportunity.
The list of people named to his agriculture advisory council would mostly support TPP and NAFTA because they are tied to industrial agriculture and dislike disruption. But, let’s posit anyway.
Would industrial agriculture find it difficult to proceed under its current model without trade agreements and price supports? Most certainly. Could it transform itself? Sure, but not without some disruption. I’d also guess that a lot of farmers would get hurt, too, as American agriculture figured it all out. Labor-intensive agriculture might find itself in a shortage of hands.
But, I’m of the opinion that if subsidies and price supports were to be reduced or eliminated, or if agriculture trade were not artificially protected by tariffs, many farmers would move from the primary grain crops – which aren’t profitable without government intervention – to something they feel could be profitable.
It could also mean that those medium-sized farms that can’t stay in business without subsidies and price supports will sell out. The purchase of these farms could likely only be afforded by corporate farms with the ability to withstand the evolution of agriculture under a new model. I don’t see that as good.
But, let me focus on those farmers who want to remain farmers but are bold enough to make a switch to something different. It can be done and this may be the EXACT catalyst to cause them to be courageous enough to shift in their techniques and mindset.
I look simply to the example of Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and rancher who when faced with serious threats to his economic viability as a farmer, changed what he farms and how he farms. It was a bold switch, certainly. But, he confesses that it was successive losses he experienced under the present agriculture model compounded by drought that forced the change.
Brown changed from a conventional tillage approach to a no-till cover crop approach and has dropped his overhead, increased his yield and grown healthy soil on his farm. He totally eliminated the use of synthetic inputs, totally eliminated tilling, totally dropped crop insurance, and is more profitable today than using conventional tillage agriculture. He out yields almost all of his neighbors in his county and his profit per yield unit far surpasses these same neighbors.
He changed his mindset. As a result, he has been able to withstand drought and recession, keep control over his operation, and begin to pass his farm down to his son as a business partner.
Will the challenges facing farmers be motivation to change their mindsets about how to practice agriculture? If you want to hear more about how Gabe Brown changed because he was going broke and thus changed to an eco-agriculture approach, watch this video. Will some of the unintended consequences of trade-treaty dissolution lead to more regenerative farming? The question presents food for thought.