The economic impact if farming fails

September 22, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Agriculture is becoming more and more newsworthy in both a positive and negative light.

I shared recently about the sour story printed in Time magazine. More recently, there is a push from USDA called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to Connect Consumers with Local Producers to Create New Economic Opportunities for Communities."

Interestingly enough, it mentions economic development, something you won't hear the mainstream economic development types mention. They only see economic development as wooing businesses to the area or trying to prevent them from leaving. Job creation and retention may sum it up.

Agriculture and farming don't get much if any attention from economic development folks because they don't have huge payrolls nor do they close up shop and move. However, one can look at the value of agriculture in ways other than simply dollars and cents.


Let's take an example: We have 150 dairy farms in the county which employ about 400 full- and part-time employees. If the dairy industry would go belly up, then 400 people would enter the existing work force. If this were a manufacturing plant, economic development folks would be scrambling to keep the doors open here. At this point, however, most bureaucrats are fiddling while Rome burns.

The dairy industry on the local and national level is selling milk for less than it costs to produce it. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a glut of milk on the market. The problem is the current milk marketing system, which was established in the early part of the last century.

So let's follow this scenario of dairy farmers shutting their doors. You now have 400 able-bodied hard workers entering the nonfarm work force. These are folks that can easily displace current workers or take newly created jobs. Their skill sets are immense. They are used to hard work, long hours, unusual hours, working weekends and holidays. They are good with their hands and mechanically minded and don't mind getting dirty. This should worry someone other than the fellow being displaced.

Looking from another angle, in addition to producing food and employing themselves and others, their farmsteads add to the beauty of the county and thus are a selling point to draw companies to the area. According to survey results, one of the many things executives consider when locating their business is quality of life issues. These include schools, infrastructure, arts and entertainment, utilities and scenery. These folks, given the choice, would rather look out their window and see picturesque farmland than cityscapes.

Proof of this appeared on the front page of the Thursday, Sept. 17, edition of this newspaper under the caption "Flower Power." This field is not far from my house and I can tell you it is one of the most photographed spots in Washington County. I have counted as many as six cars at one time stopping with folks jumping out with cameras at the ready.

While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, nothing attracts a crowd like a newborn calf or a field of sunflowers. So in the spirit of Knowing Your Farmer Knowing Your Food, get out in the countryside this fall and pick a pumpkin or enjoy a corn maze or even take a picture of sunflowers or whatever you find picturesque.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland 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

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