By Doug Rich.

The Kansas Legislature's Special Committee on Agriculture held the last of four field hearings Nov. 15, at the Johnson County Community College, in Overland Park.

The hearings were held to collect input on marketing issues, agribusiness, concentration and environmental concerns.

The other hearings were held in Pittsburg, Garden City, and Hays.

During the first half of the hearing, the committee heard from Dr. Marc Johnson, dean of agriculture, at Kansas State University; Mark Drabenstott, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City; and Dr. William Heffernan, University of Missouri.

Since Sept. 11, the general economy has been poised on the edge of recession, but Dr. Johnson pointed out that the U.S. agricultural economy has been in a recession for the past four years. A combination of low commodity prices and adverse weather conditions contributed to a recession in the agricultural sector of the nation's economy. "Government payments has been a large part of the farm income during that time," said Dr. Johnson.

"Kansas farmers produce for consumers around the world and compete for markets around the world," said Dr. Johnson. The prices Kansas farmers receive for their commodities are determined by conditions around the world. "Economies have been weak around the world and the consumption of commodities is down as a result."

The recession in agriculture has fueled the consolidation trend as farms become larger and larger. This makes it increasingly difficult to define a family farm. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than half of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. are classified as residential, lifestyle or retirement type farms, with most of the income coming from off-farm sources. A small percentage of the farms, in the U.S. and in Kansas, produce most of the commodities. In Kansas, 9% of the farms produce 75% of the farm product value.

Besides dealing with depressed commodity prices, farmers have been asked to shoulder many new responsibilities that are above and beyond the normal duties of running a farm or ranch. These additional responsibilities include soil and water conservation, controlling noxious and invasive weeds, and following biosecurity guidelines. All of these require more time and money from producers who don't have much of either to spare.

Drabenstott told the committee that a decline in population continues to hamper rural development and growth across rural America. He said one out of two farm-dependent counties across America lost population in the 1990s. In Kansas, 70% the rural counties lost population in the 1990s. "In these rural communities, there are not enough heads to wear all the hats," said Drabenstott. "There are too many jobs to be done to make a rural community viable. Many of these communities have a public service delivery system that was put in place in the 1970s that does not match up with 21st century rural economy."

Policy makers are really dealing with two different types of agriculture, according to Drabenstott. Traditional commodity agriculture, on one side, and product agriculture that attempts to deliver a specific product to the end user, on the other side.

Dr. Heffernan said the food system in this country is becoming more like the other segments of the economy. This means a growing reliance on cheap imports to meet its needs. "If we can import it cheaper than we can produce it, should we be buying it from poorer countries," asked Dr. Heffernan. "Is this the end of commodity agriculture? Global firms travel around the world looking to source their material, at the least cost."

A new food system is growing that connects people to the production of their food, according to Dr. Heffernan. Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their food is produced. "People are willing to pay 10 to 15% more for food produced differently," said Dr. Heffernan. "Not all farmers will be able to switch to this new food system."

What can the Kansas Legislature do to help farmers, ranchers, and rural communities deal with these challenges? The three panel members had a number of suggestions, including: improved educational resources in rural areas; improved transportation system, technical assistance to promote product agriculture; and regional legislation, rather than a one-size-fits-all policy.

Drabenstott suggested that maybe it is time for a 21st Century Commission on Country Life, similar to the one established by President Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago. "Rural quality of life is an important building block for future legislation," he said.

"Kansas will always be a major player in the food production business," said Dr. Johnson. "Even though agriculture is in a recession, at the present time, rural Kansas has value to the nation."

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