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Concentration, diversification and agriculture – Part I
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor report continues to indicate intensification in extreme Southwest Kansas. Much of Northwest Kansas in now considered extremely dry. Our area is becoming drier but as of Tuesday, April 28 was rated fine. The abnormally dry conditions are as close as northwestern Rush County. Also appearing is a swath of abnormally dry counties just to the north of Barton County. The six to ten day outlook (May 5 to 9) indicates above normal to slightly below normal temperatures, except above average for extreme western Kansas and normal to slightly below normal precipitation for the state. This should benefit the planting of spring crops but some rain would be welcome. Looking out eight to 14 days (May 7 to 13) indicates normal precipitation and normal to below normal temperatures. The 30 day outlook (May) is still calling for of equal chances of below or above normal temperatures and above normal precipitation with the 90 day (May through August) outlook predicting equal chances of above or below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation.  

Reports of damage to the wheat crop are all over the map depending on where you are in Barton County. Some reports, particularly as you go northwest from Great Bend, are indicating severe damage with lesser damage as you move to the southeast. Time will tell the tale. Some fields that appear fine may exhibit damage as the weather warms and/or heads emerge. Some wheat that appears severely damaged may still produce some wheat from later tillers.

Today, let’s briefly discuss our modern food production system. The news is full of stories regarding illness and meatpacking plants, produce rotting in the fields, euthanized hogs, and dumping of milk. There are predictions of food interruptions and shortages, many from the industry. This has fostered discussions regarding our food production and delivery system. There isn’t enough room here to go in depth but it might be helpful to examine it in an objective way. Before we start though, keep in mind that while there may be brief, spot shortages or a lack of selection, there will be food on the shelves. Today, why do we have the system we have?

Whether meat or poultry, traditional farm crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, or your fruits and vegetables, we have developed an industrial model for food production. Why?

• In a country of over 300 million, only a few million are involved in the producing foodstuffs and processing them for a variety of social and economic reasons. How do you produce a safe, sustainable, affordable food supply with a small percentage of the population? Through specialization and technology modern agriculture is able to increase production of all foodstuffs. By specializing, producers and processors more efficiently use resources and become “experts” in production and processing. Included is the idea of “economy of scale” where cost advantages occur when production becomes efficient. Producers and processors achieve economies of scale through increasing production and lowering costs. This idea is that costs are spread over a larger number of goods, especially fixed costs such as land and equipment. The larger the business, the more the cost savings are incurred and the cost of production per unit decreases. And it allows more power in terms of buying inputs and selling outputs.

• Technology comes into play for two major reasons. First, technology is cheaper than labor. Second, technology allows producers and processors to do one of the following: produce more with the same level of inputs or produce the same level of output with fewer inputs thus increasing efficiency. It also has the added advantage of requiring fewer, well-trained, more highly paid labor. Why do we have large scale hog, poultry, dairy, and feed yard operations? Simply, fewer skilled workers are needed and it is easier to obtain a uniform product as quickly as possible.

Next week: What difficulties does this model present, what can be done to help overcome these challenges, and our global agricultural system.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.