Agriculture: More ‘Urban’ Than You Think

Linda Benedict  |  6/2/2005 12:57:45 AM

R. Larry Rogers

Diversity is a word used frequently in discussions related to social, environmental and economic issues. The word diversity implies variety, inclusiveness and comprehensiveness, qualities that have the capacity to lend strength to an individual, an organization, a system or an entity. Therefore, diversity is considered a highly desirable quality. Among other things, it imparts to those individuals, entities and systems that have this characteristic the ability to prepare for and respond to opportunities and challenges more effectively and comprehensively than those lacking this quality.

Diversity can certainly be used most appropriately in describing agriculture in Louisiana and research programs of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station (LAES). One of the greatest challenges the LAES task force charged with developing a strategic plan titled “Focus 2000: Research for the Twenty-first Century” encountered was developing a statement that defined the word agriculture. I think it is appropriate to include that definition because it explains why diversity is an integral part of agriculture in Louisiana.

If you reflect on this definition, you will find that the diversity of Louisiana’s agriculture derives from two primary sources.

Louisiana farmers are engaged in the production of many agricultural commodities. Timber, cotton, sugarcane, rice and soybeans are the major plant commodities, but perhaps as many as 100 other agronomic and horticultural crops go into the agricultural mix, which annually generates $2.5 billion to $3 billion of income for farmers. Poultry, beef cattle and dairy are the primary farm animal enterprises, but horses, sheep and swine also generate about $1 billion a year in farm income. Aquaculture enterprises such as catfish, crawfish, alligators and other fisheries and wildlife enterprises now generate about $500 million a year in income for farmers and landowners. Collectively, the production of this diversity of animal and plant commodities generates $4 billion to $5 billion per year in farm income that comprises the real economic base for most rural communities in this state as well as employment for thousands of others in urban areas engaged in the production of machinery, supplies and services needed to support production of these agricultural commodities. Production of this vast array of agricultural commodities is possible because of the rich natural resource base in Louisiana and a favorable temperate to subtropical climate.

The greatest and least-appreciated source of diversity in agriculture relates to the myriad of off-farm activities that supports agricultural production - transportation, storage, processing, marketing and use of agricultural commodities and products derived from them. The social and economic impacts of agriculture are far greater off the farm than on the farm. Agriculture and related activities constitute about 16 percent, or $1.5 trillion, of the total U.S. economy and provide employment for approximately 17 percent of the U.S. work force or about 23 million jobs.

The LAES is charged by federal and state legislation to conduct research that supports agriculture in the broadest sense of the word. Our forefathers made the decision more than 100 years ago, in 1887, to invest public federal and state funds to support agricultural research with the expectation that the technologies derived from this research would contribute to economic development, an improved standard of living, enhanced national security, and the conservation and protection of natural resources.

This investment of public funds has served society exceedingly well. During the past century, the percentage of the U.S. population directly engaged in production agriculture has declined from about 50 percent to less than 2 percent. The needs of 280 million people are being met using less land than was required for a population of 75 million in 1900, and more than 20 percent of current production is exported. The average U.S. family can access the greatest variety of the safest food available anywhere in the world using only about 10 percent of their total disposal income. These factors have played absolutely essential roles in dramatically improving the standard of living, the health and the longevity of Americans over the past century. Clearly, our forefathers’ expectation that investment of public funds in agriculture and agricultural-related research would pay big dividends for Americans has been realized much more effectively than they could have possibly imagined.

The LSU AgCenter administration believes that accountability is part of our responsibility as public servants and stewards of public funds. Louisiana Agriculture is one of the ways we attempt to keep the citizens of Louisiana informed about programs and accomplishments of this organization. This issue focuses on some of our programs and accomplishments that relate to the city dweller as well as to our more traditional farm audience. Included are articles about our research in mosquito control and forensic entomology. Other research efforts that evolved out of more traditional agricultural programs include fire ant control and the battle being waged with the Formosan subterranean termite. Other issues of this magazine have focused on food safety, composting and human ecology – topics that directly affect both the urban and rural Louisianian. If you are interested in receiving back issues, please contact the magazine’s editor.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue. Agriculture is more “urban” than many people realize. We welcome your suggestions for improving the relevance and effectiveness of our research programs. We thank you for your past support of the LSU AgCenter and request your continued support so we can maintain, and enhance, our quest to improve the quality of your lives and communities.

Agriculture is a diverse and dynamic activity that encompasses the science and art of managing, protecting and conserving natural resources such as soil, water, air and sunlight to produce plants and animals that provide food, clothing, shelter and other amenities for man. Agriculture also includes forestry, fisheries, wildlife, human nutrition, apparel design, ornamental horticulture, gardening, and development of human and community resources. Moreover, the term includes a myriad of agriculturally related businesses such as those involved with banking and finance, food processing and packaging, marketing and distribution, farm structures and equipment, and agricultural chemicals and fertilizers. Thus, agriculture is intimately intertwined with local, state, national and international economics.

R. Larry Rogers, Vice Chancellor, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article appeared in the spring 2001 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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