11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer
Farmers are not the first people one thinks of as optimists — a plowman squinting at a rainless sky is a universal symbol of skepticism — but the unstoppably upbeat Lowell Catlett sees a bright future for farming.
Already in a golden age, agriculture is “probably going to go into the platinum age” in the next decades, Catlett, a corporate consultant and the dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University, said in a phone interview.
Catlett will speak Thursday at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Agriculture Industry Banquet at the DoubleTree Resort in Lancaster.
“I’m going to paint a very positive picture” of agriculture in the United States and the world, he said.
The last six years have been the best six on record for returns to farmers, Catlett, an agricultural economist, said. Farming did not go into recession the way most other industries did in that time period.
Agriculture has also become more diversified in recent years, as locally grown and gluten-free markets develop.
“Consumers want that, and we have the ability to provide that,” he said.
As millions of people rise out of abject poverty worldwide and “world wealth” sets all-time records, people are also able to afford better food, he said.
Being an anonymous grower who sends unremarkable corn or undifferentiated beef to market is an increasingly unwise option in a world that offers premium prices for antibiotic-free and all-natural products, he said.
Back in Catlett’s home state of New Mexico, the farmers of the niche Valencia peanut, prized for its flavor, switched from conventional ag to organic growing almost overnight after Costco and Trader Joe’s sought organic Valencia peanuts for their peanut butter.
Biofuels are another emerging market, and they are providing more sustainable energy than the country has ever known, he said.
“It really is important to figure out which segment of the market you want to produce to,” Catlett said.
Farming also has health benefits for everyone. “You just can’t have healthy people when you separate them from the natural world,” he said.
To be happy and well, humans must be near other people. Lancaster County has fared well in this respect because of its emphasis on family and community, Catlett said.
At the same time, people also need to feel a connection with the natural world of plants and animals. “People are understanding that plant and animal and human interaction more than ever,” he said.
The innovations in agriculture are coming from all over the industry, “big people to small people,” Catlett said. He pointed to feed industry scientists who are researching genetics and machine manufacturers who produce planters capable of planting different hybrids at different densities at the same time.
As agriculture has changed, the nonfarming public’s perception of farmers has changed as well. Catlett supports ideas like allowing urban chicken raising that can reconnect people to farming.
“A lot of people around agriculture said that was stupid, but I said, Hold on,’ ” he said. “People are going to find out how hard it is today to raise chickens” if they have to deal with chicken feed and waste.
Attitudes toward farmers have also improved over time. While many people’s opinion has been “Oh, all they’re doing is spraying pesticides,” farming is now considered one of the 10 most honorable occupations, Catlett said.
While growing practices in New Mexico and Pennsylvania are the same, the Keystone State has a built-in transportation advantage, he said.
“When lettuce comes off in southern New Mexico where I live,” it must be trucked hundreds or thousands of miles to be processed and sold, whereas Pennsylvania growers have many food processors in state and huge markets close by, he said.
Just as Catlett breaks the mold with his boundless optimism, he is also not your stereotypical dry, stuffy economist. He is an animated speaker, with both a dynamic voice and energetic hand gestures.
“Oh, it’ll be lively,” he said of his talk next week. “The future’s so bright you have to wear sunshades.”