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Sharing ag news with other countries

June 23, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

In recent weeks, I have had the pleasure of showing off our county to nearly two dozen foreign visitors. They hailed from China and Germany, two very different cultures, but what struck me was the similarity of their questions.

Their first question was the state and fate of the family farm. What did the future hold for the family farm and would such a thing survive? While the question was the same, the view point was different. You need to remember China has a communist form of government and Germany being in Europe is more environmentally minded.

The Chinese saw the future of U.S. agriculture moving in one of two directions. First, they wondered if we would send our food production offshore as we have with most of our other major industries. I told them I didn't think that would happen in the wake of several cases of food borne illnesses being linked to imported food. I told them most Americans would eventually choose food security and food safety over cheaper imports. While I believe I am correct, I am unsure of the timeline.

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The other direction they said they saw things going, if not offshore, would be all agriculture would be centralized or vertically integrated like the current system of the majority U.S. poultry and swine production.

Sadly, I had to agree. With most American's disinterested in where or how their food is produced, this is a possibility. Will it happen, I don't know. I only hope more people will connect their plate to the farm gate.

The Germans, on the other hand, felt family farms will be taken over by multi-national corporations which they feel already wield too much influence.

These Germans, who were farmers, were not opposed to genetically modified crops on a moral or philosophical basis, but rather the intrusion or control seed and chemical companies had on the products, and thus they felt, on their profit margins.

The other question asked by both groups dealt with land use. Neither group could believe we would go out into the middle of the countryside and build housing developments. Again their opinions followed their internal biases. The Chinese cannot fully appreciate unfettered property rights and thus felt people should build only where infrastructure such as public water and sewer were available. This was simply more efficient, end of story.

Our friends from Germany again are European and Europe has long come to grips with the fact that land is not in endless supply. They see Americans using its land resources foolishly as if it was endless. They also use nearly every available parcel of land for feed or food production. They would make hay off a one acre undeveloped lot rather than mow it like a lawn. In many parts of Europe, lawns aren't lawns at all but vegetable and herb gardens. I remember when I was visiting Holland; I went to a townhouse and the gentleman had no front lawn. His walk from the road to his door was bounded by vegetable gardens and this was representative of the neighborhood.

As you might imagine, I found the observations of our visitors very thought provoking. I trust it will set you to think, too, especially the next time the conversation turns to agriculture and land use.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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