Will Farmers Be Partners or Serfs in the New "Biobased Economy"?

It is hard to imagine any similarity between Iowa's tranquil farm country and hard-driving Silicon Valley, but journalist Allison Engel -- who once reported from San Jose and now lives near Des Moines -- says she sees a strong resemblance. In the corn belt, as in Silicon Valley 20-odd years ago, you get the feeling that a revolution has started.

The revolution -- which, if it comes to pass, will have an impact on all of American agriculture, not just Iowa's -- is a transition into what some of its advocates call a "biobased economy." The country (and eventually the world) would move away from dependence on petroleum and turn to crops grown in the fields and forests as a primary source of fuel, medicines, specialty chemicals for industry, building materials, textiles and plastics.

If that happens, many farmers will move away from growing plants exclusively for food and will be able to turn to new sources of income and new ways of doing things.

This idea has caught the fancy of policy-makers, university departments of agriculture, and some corporations. As for the farmers, they are listening, hopeful that the change may get them off the subsidy dole and bring new money and people and vitality into moribund rural communities.

Although no one can say at this point how far or how fast this revolution may proceed, it is highly likely there will be at least some movement in the biobased direction, swept along on a wave of technological innovations -- not only in plant breeding but in ways to process farm products for fuel and other uses -- and by a strong push from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm-state legislators, and agricultural organizations.

The big question is how, exactly, farmers will relate to the changed system. Will they find creative and profitable ways to be active entrepreneurs in biobased production systems, or will they be reduced to passive cogs in a huge high-technology industry? Will they become -- as one speaker at a recent conference on agricultural biotechnology put it -- partners or serfs?

The most obvious entrepreneurial opportunity -- now being talked up by some agricultural leaders -- is for farmers to become operators or at least part-owners of the new "bio-refineries" that are likely to spring up in rural communities.

These will convert farm products -- and probably farm wastes such as the leftovers from a corn harvest -- into fuel and chemicals. They will, in effect, bring a piece of the new high-tech production system into farm country, and bring new jobs and income as well.

The question is, who will own them? The answer proposed by some is for farmers to form new cooperative associations, not only to run bio-refineries but also to give producers more clout in purchasing and marketing activities.

The serfhood path -- more politely known as "contract farming" -- figures in some scenarios of future high-tech production. The farmer will grow new crops under contract to a specific company, which will retain access to the germ plasm being used.

This is highly likely to happen in some cases -- a kind of path of least resistance. It offers the farmer a certain security and a relatively easy entree into new kinds of productivity -- but it also means that the farm no longer much resembles an independent business.

More farmers will be earning their living about the way most poultry producers do now. Most people in the agricultural world find that prospect unattractive, but to avoid it, they will probably have to take some risks and explore some new ways of doing things.

Either way, farming appears likely to become more information-dependent than it has been. American farmers have always hungrily absorbed new information about crops, fertilizers, technological developments, and have relied heavily on agricultural colleges and extension services.

In the near future -- as entirely new crops and processes come out of the laboratories and into the fields -- these networks will become ever more important. Futurists like Peter Drucker have been talking for years about the increasing importance of "knowledge workers" and information-savvy managers. What we see now is the age of the knowledge farmer.

Entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, new businesses, high technology, information. Maybe the Silicon Valley-corn belt comparison isn't so far out after all.

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