Steve Cubbage: Ag Could Have A Wild Ride In The Next Decade

Who would have thought that burgers now come from peas and milk now comes from almonds? ( MGN Online )

The calendar has rolled to a new month, new year and yes, a new decade. We have collectively arrived in the year 2020.

For those whose chosen profession is agriculture the past decade may have felt reminiscent of the classic Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities — only the rural version. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

The early years of the previous decade may have truly been the best of times at least when it came to commodity prices — $7 corn and beans in their teens. Things were so good that it paid to even plant corn in the garden, flower pots and even tilling up your yard was probably considered and actually done for real in a few cases. One could do no wrong. But then came a stark change in fortunes in 2014 — lower prices, dwindling demand and a sense of stagnation that doesn’t want to let go. To cap the last 10 years you had one of the strangest and most demoralizing planting seasons on record that left most old timers still scratching their heads.

As production agriculture starts to shake off the doldrums of winter and prepare for its first production season of a new decade — everyone who has a stake in the outcome has to wonder what’s ahead. Not just this year, but where will agriculture be when the next decade rolls around? That has to make one pause and consider that if the next 10 years changes things in the industry as much as the last 10 then buckle up because this is going to be one wild ride.

While marketing firms love to bring back the nostalgia of the farmer of yesteryear it is at odds with the new reality that is being forced upon the industry. Consider this. Who would have thought that burgers now come from peas and milk now comes from almonds? I’m just thinking Clara Peller the sweet little lady from the 1980s Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” commercials would be having a fit right now!  A stomping mad fit. And what about “Got Milk?” Frankly, I’m not sure what we’ve got. Is this the new reality that is being forced upon us whether we like it or not?

All indications would say yes. When you have urban farming on the rise while the millions of acres of farmland in the rural areas struggle to produce goods that this new generation of consumers find acceptable you know the “old way” of doing things isn’t resonating. When the word “sustainability” becomes a key influencer when choosing your KIND protein bar or your carefully sourced home delivered meal from Blue Apron or Hello Fresh you know this isn’t yesterday’s consumer. 

For producers all of these changes all seem sort of surreal. Change is hard. Most of us don’t want to deal with it. And I’ve heard these words a lot more lately —“I just want to farm.”  Translated that means “I don’t want to change.”  

But one has to sober to the fact that future profitability may depend more on others knowing how you produce food and not simply focusing on producing more of it. Food that nourishes the con-sumer emotionally as much as it does nutritionally will likely win the day. If you can feed the planet and save it at the same time — you will become an agrarian superhero. 

Two examples of industry programs that focus on “how” food is being grown and actually putting real metrics and meaning to the “emotional” side of production are Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN program and Indigo’s Terraton Initiative. SUSTAIN is really a push to the “consumer” sustainability scorecard for major companies like the Wal-Mart’s and Coca Cola’s of the world. Meanwhile Terraton is Indigo’s push to transform agriculture as the champion fighting climate change and reclaiming one trillion tons of carbon from our atmosphere. Like it or not — these programs exist today and more will invariably follow. 

But it will take technology — much more technology on the farm and agribusinesses to drive such programs and data will be at the center of it all. Having the right data at the right time and at the right place will like having a FastPass+ at Disney World. If you want to ride the new Star Wars ride you’re going to have have a FastPass+. And data transparency about the farmer, the fields and the food that they grow will likely be the ticket you’ll want to have in this new decade. Otherwise, instead of riding Star Wars to a new galaxy you may end up disappointed stuck standing in line back on Earth with a ticket to the less than thrilling Spinning Teacups ride. Not cool. Not cool at all!