Agricultural development vs. economic development

Published 9:36 am Friday, April 26, 2013

It has been more than a month since Lynn Sprague asked me to think about writing a Conservation Corner about agricultural development in the context of economic development, and I’m still thinking.

At first glance, they seem like the same thing to me; but the devil is in the details. The more I look and consider what the average person considers economic development, the more I realize that agricultural development is quite different from economic development as we see it today. I’ve even read Lester Brown’s book Eco Economy, and found it to be quite intellectually stimulating while having few concrete messages for the problems we are facing in Polk County these days.

Economic development means jobs, plain and simple. Whether those jobs are provided by a local entrepreneur or a large company from somewhere else is of little consequence. Jobs bring new people and money into the county, and that translates into more property taxes and revenue. Conversely, more people require more services, such as schools and police protection, so rarely is there a real economic gain for the county.

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Agricultural development is entirely different; it grows from the bottom up. It develops from the people who already live here, and it can only grow and survive if it meets the needs of the local market as well as a regional market. Responsible agricultural development is a whole lot harder to do, because it is a whole lot more complicated. It must be built upon natural resources within our community, yet it must be sustainable. Any new enterprise should also be tailored to serve a need within the community. Most likely it should start on a small or moderate  scale, with an eye towards growth after the business is firmly bedded in the community. Any new business will have unforeseen consequences, which are better dealt with at the beginning stages than later when the problems are more serious. If we were to do on a local level what the big agricultural corporations have done on the Great Plains, we’d be living with depleted soil within 50 years. Some of our fields are still trying to get back the fertility they lost when Polk County was the cotton growing capital of the state … those good old days.