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Agricultural Systems Overview

Agricultural enterprises—crop or livestock—deal with such concepts as labor supply, marketing, finances, natural resources, genetic stock, nutrition, equipment, and hazards. While it is possible to effectively manipulate each mechanism of successful farming individually, better results can often be obtained by treating the farming operation as a system. The interactions, then, among system components may become more important than how each component functions by itself. Treating production operations holistically offers greater management flexibility, provides for more environmentally and economically sound practices, and creates safer and healthier conditions for workers and for farm animals. NIFA staffers conduct research, education, and extension activities in programs related directly and indirectly to agricultural systems.

For all of the 19th century and much of the 20th century, U.S. agriculture was primarily based on maximizing production. As a result, the nation became the breadbasket for the world, generating large surpluses and even encouraging farmers to remove some land from production. These production successes depressed prices for many commodities and have kept them there. Prices that producers receive for agricultural commodities have not kept up with their increasing production costs. Subsequently, narrow profit margins have driven smaller producers out of agriculture and forced larger producers to become more efficient in their operations—minimizing expenses while maximizing production. Public interests have further constrained farmers by an increasing demand for clean air and water, healthy soils, humane animal treatment, and minimal chemical applications.

Under this scenario, smaller producers and producers of specialty products often struggle to succeed. By taking a more entrepreneurial approach to producing and marketing their goods, however, these producers can be successful. Organic, horticultural, and other specialty crop producers can take advantage of growing niche markets that allow them to retain more crop value behind the farm gate. In many cases, distribution chains are shortened greatly, which can increase product quality, lower transportation costs, and create a more resilient and secure food-supply chain. For the foreseeable future, there is probably a need for both types of production environments. In some cases, individual producers are incorporating both into their overall agricultural enterprises.

Concerns about sustainability in agriculture are central to most of the programs in this emphasis area. While it is possible to maintain economic sustainability for an agricultural activity through artificial means, this approach may not be sustainable for the long term. Eventually, environmental costs, regulations, and market changes will make artificial supports untenable. On the other hand, an agricultural activity that is designed to be environmentally and ecologically sustainable can be made economically sustainable through regulatory and market pressures and the application of new technologies. These mechanisms are driving many of the research, education, and extension activities of the following NIFA programs:

Manure & Nutrient Management: Manure is a valuable, slow-release fertilizer that allows farmers to recycle animal waste back into crop production. When animal feeding operations are large and concentrated, however, manure and nutrient management becomes much more difficult. Odors, nitrogen gases, and pathogens accumulate if the waste cannot be distributed to farm fields readily and widely. This program addresses environmental issues associated with manure management, as well as the many beneficial uses of manure for plant nutrition and useful by-products.

Organic Agriculture: Many consumers are taking greater interest in where their food comes from and how it is grown, creating a demand for agricultural products that adhere to certain “healthy” production practices. Organic operations seek to lower production inputs and costs, to apply environmentally sound practices (natural manures, cultural pest management, and minimal soil disturbance), and to maintain healthy agro-ecosystems. These farms tend to be smaller, closer to the consumer (both geographically and in the supply chain), and individually produce a variety of products. Organic activities rely more on site-specific information that ties in closely with new precision farming technologies.

Precision Farming: Enabling technologies are converging with agriculture and forestry to provide the measurement, storage, analysis, and decisionmaking needs of these industries. Techniques are being developed to:

  • Make precise measurements and continuously monitor field, forest, or product conditions through sensors and controls.
  • Organize large volumes of data with spatially referenced databases.
  • Analyze and interpret that information using decision support systems that allow producers to make economically favorable choices.

A readily available portfolio of such technologies increases the nation's readiness, enabling us to effectively confront current and future problems in our food and fiber systems.

Small Farms: Agricultural advancements, coupled with relatively low prices for farm products, have encouraged many agricultural producers to farm more acres and raise more animals. However, the presence of smaller farms helps to enhance the quality of life in rural communities by preserving open green space, providing locally produced fresh produce, sustaining local businesses, and creating opportunities for rural youth. By supporting education programs and access to services, technical assistance, and other resources, this program increases the viability of the small-farming culture.

Sustainable Agriculture: Rural community vitality and prosperity are closely tied to agricultural sustainability. Not only do rural residents benefit financially from agricultural enterprises, but they also enjoy living amidst the physical and social environments they create. Consequently, maintaining these latter amenities is critical to the financial success and well-being of communities.

Workforce Development & Safety: While the agricultural workforce has shrunk over time, it still represents a large segment of the rural population and provides substantial human capital to agricultural industries. This program helps to maintain workforce value by supporting farm owners and their families and farm workers in keeping their skills current and their workplace safe. Because agriculture records injuries and fatalities at a pace second only to mining, worker safety education is critical. Many injured workers eventually return to their agricultural jobs, so this program also supports training and technologies to help those dealing with reduced physical capabilities.