A seed is filled with unlocked potential. Add a little soil, sunlight, and water, and within days the seed begins to sprout, filling the pot and then eventually the garden, and if it was a zucchini seed it will overflow your kitchen countertops. But if these inputs are withheld, the seed will eventually wither away.
American agriculture is like the seed. Given the right resources of water, land, labor, and technology, the agriculture industry will grow and flourish filling the world’s grocery stores, but even if one of these inputs is withheld, the farming and ranching communities weaken quickly.
The United States is home to one of the cheapest, most abundant, and safest food supplies in the world. Until the pandemic, shortages and cost increases were only seen in the briefest and rarest of incidents. Unfortunately, since 2020 the country has seen the consequences of a consolidated food supply system.
This is not a scenario worth replaying. Free market agriculture thrives when resources are available for their best and fairest use. Farming and ranching, especially small operations, can succeed when the inputs needed to grow an efficient harvest are available throughout the growing season. These resources include water, land, labor, and technology (to name a few).
These are the stories of farmers who have had to learn to farm with limitations on these resources.
Water - In the Odessa aquifer region of Washington State, farmers have needed to switch to another water resource for decades. Some farmers are able to buy enough groundwater rights from neighbors, others are resigned to farming lower value, less water consumptive crops and/or letting ground go fallow. Over decades, these farmers have lobbied policymakers to replace groundwater systems with canal-supplied storage water. The project has been slow and arduous, with many promises still unfulfilled.
Land – Farmers in Idaho are facing increases in land rental prices as the housing and commercial demand skyrockets regionally. Balancing the need for farmland with property rights is a difficult, but doable proposition. But policymakers must avoid the situation that Oregon farmers face that prevent almost any development on their land. Oregon farmers are only allowed one house per 80-acres, preventing future workers from being easily housed near the farm. These policies disrespect property rights, stagnate growth, and hurt rural communities.
Labor – Farmers depending on H-2A (temporary visa) workers are often handling excessive state restrictions, in an already complex and frustrating federal system. Additionally, farmers in states without an agriculture overtime exemption are attempting to find a solution that respects the seasonality of their profession and the best interests of the farm workers choosing to thrive in this seasonality.
Technology – A few farmers in Southwestern Oregon have had to farm without Genetically Modified (GMO) crops, dealing with decreased yields and increased pest pressure. Jackson County and Jefferson County voted to ban GMOs in 2014, to favor seed growers, over other farmers that grew GMOs. However, a judge overturned the decision in 2016 for Jefferson County, and the Oregon legislature ensured after the fact that no other county could issue a similar ban, leaving Jackson County as the only Oregon county with an effective ban.
For millennia, any person who planted a seed knew there were greater, uncontrollable forces at play that would limit resources. But throughout the course of history, farmers have captured these resources and maximized their availability. Unfortunately, regulatory pressure has created a man-made shortage on many of these resources.
Free market agriculture will grow when these man-made limitations are minimized and resources are available for its best use. In our upcoming study, Mountain States Policy Center identified our top ten recommendations to protect and improve a free agricultural market. Our first three recommendations are mentioned here, and recommendations #4 - #7 focus on the ability for free market agriculture to grow when resources are available:
4. Existing agricultural water usage needs to be protected and the development of water storage/resources encouraged.
5. Land development must balance the necessity of property rights with the necessity of land for food production.
6. Agricultural labor needs to be accessible, and laws should respect the seasonal work dynamics of farming.
7. Technology should be made available to farmers without excessive restrictions.
Stay tuned for our upcoming study. The expected release date is early September!