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Newell: Louisiana farms need big tech investment to survive

Newell Normand
February 18, 2020 - 4:47 pm

A few weeks ago Newell spoke to representatives from the big regional ports about what effect tariffs and trade wars are having on the agricultural sector in Louisiana. Now, a number of rural towns have gone before the bond commission looking for approval of a bond issue to generate dollars to cover recurring expenses. What’s going on in Louisiana’s farming communities? Newell invited the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Dr. Mike Strain onto the program Tuesday morning to discuss.

“There was a report out the other day about some of the financial trouble some of the rural towns are having,” Newell began. “With depopulation, consolidation, mechanization, generally the manner in which the agricultural economy is working or not - they find themselves borrowing money to pay for recurring costs. Where do you see this going? Is this the new landscape for us?”

“Actually, no,” Strain answered. “When I was a legislator, we’d often have to use general tax dollars to help local governments keep the lights on. What’s happening across America is another shift, where you have people moving from rural areas to urban and suburban ones. One reason is the weakness of the infrastructure in the rural areas. One of the number one reasons young people are leaving is that there is no access to high-speed broadband. Young people won’t stay in an area with no access to broadband. It affects all aspects of their quality of life - education, healthcare, business opportunities. Also, in the world of agriculture, farms get larger and the technology advances. There’s less need for untrained or unskilled workers in modern agriculture and large farms.”

“How much of the lands located adjacent to the Mississippi River and other navigable waterways is underused?” Newell asked.

“Probably not a lot next to the Mississippi, that’s the richest soil in the world,” Strain said. “We have a very high utilization of our croplands. Areas that you see that may be fallow, those that have substantial value as a wetland or as conservation reserve lands, we try to maintain those to balance the ecosystem. But one thing we are doing as a trade off is, for example, when you take land on the river growing sugarcane and use it for an industrial project, we will move those sugarcane acres further north. It’s about the highest and best use. All of Louisiana is in ag, forestry, or aquaculutre. 85% of our landmass is producing something, but we don’t have sufficient infrastructure and we need to figure out how to reinvest so we can be processing those natural resources. We ship timber and logs to Southeast China where they make furniture. Well, how do we set it up where we’re building the furniture here?” 

“I heard Mayor Bloomberg’s comments the other day that you simply dig a hole, put a seed in there, put dirt on top and add water, up comes corn, and he could teach anyone to do that because it doesn’t take a whole lot of gray matter to do that,” Newell continued.

“The exact opposite is really true,” Strain said. “Just to harvest sugarcane, you need a million dollars worth of equipment. When you have 1,000 acres, everything is done with science, technology and innovation. Understand that this is a biological manufacturing facility. Agriculture is complex, and in order to be successful and produce, you have to do everything scientifically. Eisenhower said it best - it’s easy to be a farmer when you’re 1,000 miles from the cornfield. It looks easier than it is if you want to be successful at it. One of the biggest degrees in America right now is Ag and Ag Engineering, so we can train the next generation how to farm with the technology of today.”

“I look at it this way,” Newell concluded. “Any industry that tries to manage Mother Nature - that’s a difficult industry to survive in!” 

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.

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