Ag impact is more than economic

(or what farmers never get paid for)


Last September when I solicited responses to the question “What I learned on my first job”, one of the people I contacted was Pike County farmer Dan Corcoran. After the piece appeared, Dan e-mailed a quick note.

“I try to tell my children how they will remember being ‘different’ will be a very good thing. … I pray this lesson will find them saying some day, “I really miss the country life,” and they will act on their true feelings for the land and her potential.”

“We need to promote the benefits [of farming], beyond the financial, and realize we are a special breed that needs to preserve the land, this opportunity, not only for our next generation, but also for the success of our nation.”

I thought of Dan’s comments this week as I read a Cornell research commentary published last summer (see April and May 2008 issues). A Cornell sociologist and animal scientist teamed up to ask upstate New Yorkers — rural and nonrural — if agriculture was important to them and, if so, why. It was nearly unanimous that agriculture was important and the most frequently selected reason was that agriculture contributes to the economy.

Regular readers have heard me preach it before: Agriculture is a true economic development driver. That’s true and while these respondents “get it”, many political and thought leaders don’t.

But there’s more to ag’s impact than just economics, the respondents said. Plain and simple: Agriculture improves quality of life.

Wow! How many other industries can say that?

Agriculture improves quality of life.

“Our evidence suggests farms, farmers and farmland are key pieces of a social, economic and environmental mosaic which binds people and communities together,” said Cornell sociologist Duncan Hilchey.

Agriculture preserves open spaces for wildlife (yes, sometimes to our dismay) and for those bucolic views everyone enjoys for free. Agriculture buffers development, it offers recreational opportunities and, of course, is a source of fresh, local food and fiber and contributes to this nation’s food security. Farms also play a major role in natural resources conservation — protecting and preserving the soil, air and water.

Perhaps the most intangible impact of agriculture is the role it plays in preserving a valued heritage, ethic and tradition. It is a “way of life” that is respected and coveted.

The New York researchers discovered that economic impacts of agriculture tend to be the first thing people think about when considering agriculture’s importance, but more than half of the respondents chose one of the noneconomic effects as being the most important.

Think about it. Your nonfarm neighbors appreciate your economic significance, but place a greater value on the view of your barn and fields and fences. They recognize the importance of keeping your bottom line healthy, but they look to you for leadership in keeping soil and water healthy, too. They know you are a solid employer, but they also think the work ethic you promote is a heritage to preserve.

The realization that agriculture’s impact is more than economic is a hard sell. But local, state and federal officials should take note: Policies that affect the farming community can have far-reaching and unintended consequences.

Agriculture improves quality of life.


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