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FARM BILL: One of the areas of great debate next year will be the Farm Bill. A growing number of people are calling for an overhaul of commodity safety net and crop insurance programs.

Trends to ponder in 2018

It’s time to consider how agriculture will be affected by societal changes.

As we head into 2018, it’s time to update our vocabulary, examine trends and consider how agriculture will be affected by changes in society as a whole. To offer some food for thought, here are a few topics I expect to hear more about in the coming year:

• BOPIS — While you may know and love bopis as a savory appetizer made of chopped pig lungs and hot chilies, retailers are using the acronym to mean “buy online, pick up in store.” For farmers, this isn’t much different than OOPPIS (order on phone, pick up in store), something most of us do before making a trek to town for parts. Except with BOPIS, you’re using a computer to check inventory rather than talking to a human being who will then use a computer to check inventory. In the end, misplaced or mislabeled inventory might still leave you emptyhanded when you reach the store, but with the phone method, you still have a specific person to yell at.

• Farm bill diversity — The 2018 Farm Bill debate is likely to include more debaters than in the past. A growing chorus of voices is calling for an overhaul of commodity safety net and crop insurance programs with claims that commodity growers are turning the Great Lakes green, aggravating climate change, creating uncontrollable super-weeds and contributing to an epidemic of obesity. And that’s just the organic farmers talking. Beyond agriculture, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups want to eliminate spending on subsidies they call costly and harmful. Meanwhile, liberal groups such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group want to eliminate subsidies, arguing that they steer farmers toward harmful and unhealthy farming practices. Impossible as it seems, the far right and far left actually agree on something, even though their reasoning differs.

It’s also clear that the new farm bill will need to cover a broader idea of agriculture. The millennials growing artisanal lettuce in abandoned warehouses and vacant lots in blighted urban neighborhoods aren’t going to stand by and let traditional rural commodity producers ignore their concerns.

Public perceptions are likely to have more influence on farm policy as well. In the past, the public might have been satisfied with a farm bill that ensures plentiful, affordable food, but now the public seems to want plentiful, affordable food produced by charming local farmers in environmentally friendly ways with minimal government spending. The 2018 Farm Bill will probably reflect those preferences, though I doubt any government program can make most of us more charming.

• Suburban sprawl — The last decade’s stagnant housing market didn’t put as much development pressure on farmland as we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s. But in 2017, realtors and builders saw demand increasing, especially from millennials who are finally ready to settle down in the suburbs. According to a Zillow economist, those millennials tend to prefer city living, but as they start families they realize they can’t afford the higher cost of housing in the city. That means they’ll be looking to suburbs for more affordable options. Meanwhile, builders will be looking for affordable land where they can supply the additional home inventory the market is calling for. Farmland within driving range of employment opportunities will be particularly attractive, and the sluggish farm economy won’t do much to hold that land in production.

• Farmers who happen to be women — In my less than impartial opinion, women farmers have been statistically under-represented all along. Even those who are actively engaged in their family farming enterprises may not mark themselves down as the principal farm operators on census forms. It’s easy to see who’s really in charge when I interview a farm couple and ask a record-keeping question. It’s not unusual for the husband to turn to the wife and repeat the question. Then she’ll tell him the answer and he’ll repeat it to me. Maybe this time some of those women will take credit, since they’re probably filling out the census forms anyway. Also, over the years I’ve been writing about agriculture I’ve noticed a gradual increase in the number of women at farm meetings, especially meetings related to organic, small-scale and local food production. When the results of this year’s census come out, I’m expecting to see a higher percentage of farmers who are women. If you’re a woman reading this, please mark your census form accordingly.

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