By Roy Frederick
Public Policy Specialist
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Nebraska
As control of the food chain shifts to processors and retailers, many observers worry about the future of family farms.
The "industrialization of agriculture" is not a farmer-friendly term, in most of Nebraska.
Agricultural industrialization implies an assembly-line operation. Large quantities of identical (or nearly identical) products move through a supply channel to consumers. Retail buyers know exactly what they are getting with each purchase. The product's brand is an important part of that identification.
The poultry industry and many fruit and vegetable industries have been transformed by industrialization. Pork and beef seem poised to follow. Perhaps a relevant question is whether any part of agriculture will escape the move toward industrialization.
A recent analysis by agricultural economists Douglas W. Allen of British Columbia and Dean Lueck of Montana offers a perspective that many producers may find refreshing. They conclude that traditional crop farming doesn't lend itself to industrialization. Stated differently, crop production is likely to be the last bastion of family farms. Here is why:
Mother Nature is all-important in crop production. Planting and harvesting occur only at certain times of the year. Moreover, unfavorable weather often disrupts traditional periods for planting and harvesting.
In short, crop production can be thought of as a series of sporadic seasonal activities. There is no possibility for continuous production, a key to industrialization. Nor is it feasible for those involved in crop production to specialize in one activity, such as planting.
Somewhat ingeniously, Allen and Lueck say that whenever hired workers are involved in work controlled by nature, opportunities arise to shirk their duties. However, a family farmer isn't likely to cheat himself. As a manager and a laborer in the family business, incentives for efficient work abound.
In general, industrialization doesn't work well when cycles are few, stages are short and unanticipated production problems are large. Each of these factors is present in crop production. Only one crop is raised per year. Planting takes only a week or two, as does harvesting. Weather can necessitate a change in plans with little notice.
Allen and Lueck conclude that crop production depends heavily on capital investments in machinery and equipment. But none of this equipment is used continuously.
It is preferable for a family farmer to be able to operate any machine when needed, rather than to attempt labor specialization. In short, crop production doesn't look like it is a candidate for industrialization anytime soon.