Changing Face Of Agriculture In Greene County And The Ozarks

   Agriculture in the Ozarks began with subsistence farming. Every family that settled in the area grew what they needed to survive. But, as research (often spread by University of Missouri Extension) expanded agricultural production leading to exports from the region, the focus of agriculture changed too.
   There was a time when the Springfield region boasted of the largest apple orchard in the Midwest. Springfield was also the tomato canning capital of the world with farmers throughout the Ozarks providing the tomatoes. Strawberry production in the region was nearly as large.
   There was a time when the Ozarks was known for its mule breeding. These mules supplied the United States military with needed livestock. During the 1960s and 1970s, the West Plains area boasted that they were the "Feeder Pig Capital of the World."
   Numerous productive dairy farms eventually led to growth in ag business. Springfield was the hub for Hiland Dairy, Mid-Am (now Dairy Farmers of America), Kraft and others that depended on local dairy production to supply production and power the local economy.
   For a period, areas of the Ozarks had very productive row crop operations, with some of the most productive corn fields now sitting under the Battlefield Mall and other businesses along Battlefield Road in Springfield.
   Then came a time when livestock operations and fescue production dominated agriculture in the Ozarks. Lawrence County is still the 24th highest ranking county in the United States for beef cow inventory. Polk County ranks 39th and Barry County is 47th. Lawrence County also ranks in the top five counties in the United States for the most beef cows per square mile.
   Even as cattle and forage production continues to thrive, other trends are expanding. It seems that the Ozarks might be in the middle of yet another agricultural transition.
   As agriculture in the Ozarks has evolved, the existence of University of Missouri Extension specialists that educate and advise local farmers with relevant research and information leading to more productive and profitable operations has remained.
   Even though trends can be exciting to discuss, not everyone likes the idea of make predictions.
   “Anyone who could predict agriculture would be wealthy. There are too many factors (like weather, policy, consumer preference, trade, etc.) to account for to make reliable predictions,” said Jennifer Lutes, agriculture business specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
   Lutes says the best prediction is to say, “it depends.”
   “If I were to say anything meaningful, it would be that farmers need to be prepared for change, change in weather, policy, and consumer preferences.     Farmers also need to be able to adapt, embrace, and overcome challenges all while monitoring their financial situation to ensure they will continue farming well into the future.”
   Agriculture is “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products.”
   But the “how” of agriculture is changing according to MU Extension specialists who see new trends developing in the Ozarks.
   “The demand for local food has exploded ... and consumer and producer participation in local food systems have dramatically increased,” according to Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
   Research by the USDA shows that when you buy local more money stays in the community. That means purchasing local is twice as efficient in boosting the local economy.
   “While our local food system in the Ozarks is growing stronger, we have a long way to go to supply the demand for local food, especially at institutions like schools, hospitals, and grocers who are all vying for more local products,” said Duitsman.
   University of Missouri Extension specialists have been working in Springfield and southwest Missouri with communities to address challenges, provide possible solutions, and encourage greater communication and coordination of efforts.
   With 53 years of experience with University of Missouri Extension, Eldon Cole, a livestock specialist, remembers what has happened in the past. He also has a grasp of developing trends.
   “I feel if we have a comparative advantage against any other part of the United States in anything it is as a forage producer,” said Cole.
   He believes the future trend will be away from “hot” fescue to the novel, non-toxic varieties. A return to alfalfa production as a companion with fescue will also be a growing trend.
   In the Ozarks, beef cows are the best users of forage. A job in town for the owner or spouse will likely remain necessary to make the operation profitable.
   “I don’t see that trend changing, but technology use in ag production is going to continue to expand,” said Cole. “I’m enthused that the next generation of farmers will transition into the tech-savvy farmers of the future. We still have acres and acres of poorly managed land that can be improved with some of that savvy.”
   Bob Schultheis, a natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension, has spent years helping landowners be innovative and figure out new farm technologies.
   He sees five basic trends impacting agriculture in the Ozarks.
   One, expect more use of precision fertilizer application, through use of grid soil sampling and variable-rate technology fertilizer equipment.
   “Due to their higher value, this has more economic promise for row crops than hay fields and pastures but becomes more economical for all as input costs increase,” said Schultheis.
   Two, there will be more use of drones (unmanned aerial systems, or UAVs) for crop scouting, livestock monitoring, and damage assessment of diseases, insects, and weather.
   Three, high tunnels for vegetable crop production should continue to increase.
   “The high tunnels make longer-season production possible, reduce the chances of weather damage to crops, and are more economically viable income producers for those that lack the capital for large acreage production,” said Schultheis.
   Four, extreme weather events will likely continue, and water will become a more valuable resource. “Missouri’s lack of water law and water conservation protocols puts it at a disadvantage to other states,” said Schultheis.
   Five, use of solar technology for electricity production on the farm will become more commonplace as the cost of the system components continues to drop.
   Jill Scheidt, an agronomy specialist with University of Missouri Extension, sees many of the same trends impacting the row crop producers she advises.
   “I do think crop farmers will start using technology to a greater extent to find out how to increase their yield and figure out what their yield-limiting factors could be. It is coming so much more accessible and commonplace,” said Scheidt.
   Technical tools should help with grid soil sampling, drones, yield monitors and other devices.
   “I also think as crop prices stay the same and input costs rise, farmers will have to make better management decisions and to do that, they will either start scouting on their own more or hire a crop consultant,” said Scheidt.
   Farmers that are already involved in technology will probably start utilizing “apps” on their phones more and be willing to pay for those "apps" instead of only using free ones.
   “There is too much money at stake not to use the tools that could give you an edge,” said Scheidt. ∆

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