Farming in America: ‘There’s a growing discontent’

Getty Images A sign near an almond farm on February 25, 2014 in Turlock, California.

Getty Images
A sign near an almond farm on February 25, 2014 in Turlock, California.

It’s not easy being a farmer in the U.S. these days and it’s bound to get harder, say those who should know.

“There’s a growing discontent among the farming community,” said John Kempf, a fruit and vegetable farmer in northeast Ohio.

“We have a farming model now that is antagonistic to the enjoyment of watching seeds grow and seeing a new born animal,” said the 26-year-old Kempf, who is chief executive of Advancing Eco Agriculture, a farming and crop nutrition consulting company.

Kempf cited issues like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), over-use of pesticides, a lack of water and soil conservation, the right way to manage livestock and climate change as key problems.

“We are in need of changes in our system and production models,” he said.

The negative sentiments come at time that’s meant to celebrate the American agriculture industry. National Agriculture Day on March 25 kicks off what is supposed to be week-long recognition of the American farmer. But some analysts say farming is at a major crossroads that masks any enjoyment.

Professor Milt McGiffen, who researches sustainable agriculture at the University of California, Riverside, said American agriculture has a lot of problems, but mostly stemming from government regulation.

“Farmers are scared over food and safety rules,” he argued. “And there’s government control over food prices. Farmers want government out of agriculture.”

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GMO battle

If one farming issue currently stands above any other—though just barely—it may be GMOs. In use since 1996, GMO seeds for crops like corn and soybeans are designed to be pesticide and disease resistant, while increasing nutritional and production value. (They are heavily restricted in Europe.)

The battle over GMO use brings up health safety concerns, with pro-GMO forces saying no scientific evidence exists citing ill-effects, while anti-forces say not enough research on health concerns have been done.

However, it’s not the health debate but forcing the agriculture system into imbalance, which concerns Mark Spitznagel, chief investment officer of investment firm Universa Investments. He’s also owner and operator of Idyll Farms in Northport, Mich.

“GMOs and other artificial techniques may be short-term solutions to increasing yields, but they are distorting the natural process and will eventually lead to ruin,” explained Spitznagel. “Agriculture is heading for a wall.”

(Read more: Current commodity prices)

At least one maker of GMO seeds, which include DuPont and Land O’Lakes in the U.S, stands by their product.

“There has not been one single food safety issue,” said Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto, the largest producer in the world of GMO seeds.

“We are very proud of our GMO technology and more than 90 percent of corn and soybean seeds in the U.S. are GMO,” he said.

As for claims that GMO promises of greater production have not been met, Fraley said American farmers are smart and wouldn’t adapt to a technology that didn’t have tangible benefits.

(This past January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Monsanto’s claims to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto GMO materials.)

High tech farming

Beyond GMOs, technology is sweeping through American agriculture. Farmers can monitor water and pesticide use with sensors in the fields. Tractor navigation has improved to allow automatic on and off systems for seeding. They can have single monitors tacking 10 different areas of plowing. And robotics are in line to replace crop pickers.

It’s grasping on to that type of innovation that is key to agriculture’s future, explained Jim Loar, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Wilbur-Ellis, a maker of agriculture products.

“Societal demands and the planet’s health will require that the population is fed utilizing less resources and improved production practices,” he said.

“The embracing of technology in farming will need to happen in a dramatic way,” argued John Hartnett, co-founder of the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation, a group dedicated to increasing technology use in agriculture.

“Farmers need to be managing their data, whether its financial or their water and crop uses,” he said.

Hartnett added bigger farms are embracing technology, and that small farmers who avoid it do so at the risk of falling out of the industry.

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Losing food supply?

Of course, not everyone sees gloom and doom for U.S. agriculture.

“It’s doing well,” said Helene Dillard, a professor of agricultural and environmental sciences at the University of California, Davis. “People are more conscious of eating good, safe food and this has raised public appreciation for farmers,” she explained.

Bruce Taylor, chief executive of fresh vegetable and fruit producer Taylor Farms, also sees daylight.

‘We’re seeing higher rents per acre for farm land and that’s a good sign that people want to farm,” he said.

The recent farm bill, signed into law last month, also helps improve this situation, said agriculture professor Tim Richards, of Arizona State University.

“They got rid of most direct subsidy payments for crops which is good,” Richards said. “That makes it more of a market-based industry.”

American farmers face ongoing fears like the long-term drought that’s devastating much of the West, especially California.

But the worries keep growing. They include possible labor shortages along with predictions of falling revenues after years of increases. Added to that, say analysts, are the low number of students in agriculture school coupled with the current average age for farming at a senior level of 58.

“We are statistically in danger of losing our food supply the way we are going,” said Advancing Eco Agriculture’s Kempf.

—By CNBC’s Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC.

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