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Agriculture did not end!,
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This review is from: The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio (Hardcover)
Reading this book 14 years after it was published is really interesting. Steven Blank advanced an iconoclastic vision that did not turn out. In his view, given that agriculture was not the most productive use of capital the US should have essentially pretty much shut it down, import all its foods, and redeploy its capital to its highest and best use.
Unsurprisingly, the future turned out differently than Blank envisioned. Blank wrote his book in 1998. Over the ten previous years, agriculture gross output measured in dollars had increased by 3.1% per year. However, from 1998 till 2010 agriculture output grew even faster by 3.4% per year. This was due to a continuous boost in productivity. Agriculture productivity in 2009 (most recent data available) is 18.1% higher than it was in 1998. In other words with unchanged land resources, the US now produces 18% more agricultural output than it did in 1998 when Blank wrote this book. Thus, to the contrary to what Blank is suggesting American agriculture has not gone away. Instead, it has thrived.
Agriculture has become increasingly more productive. Of the main three economic inputs (land, labor, capital), land has remained pretty much constant. Labor has kept on declining as fewer and fewer people work in the agricultural sector. And, invested capital has rapidly increased as agriculture production is getting increasingly automated. Therefore, the capital input is the main contributor to the rise in agriculture productivity. That's not the sign of a dying economic sector starving for capital.
There is another aspect to Blank's vision that did not make sense. The US is the World's top agricultural producer with some of the most fertile lands, a favorable climate, and the most productive agricultural sector. Consequently, the US is the largest agriculture exporter in the World. If the US converted all its agricultural land to golf courses as Blank suggested, it would have severe consequences. Those include food shortages, skyrocketing food prices, and ensuing famine in much of the World. And, Americans would be affected too, at least by the skyrocketing food prices. Those higher food prices would wipe out any speculative economic gains from redeploying capital towards other industries.
Given America's land configuration, it is unclear if capital invested in agriculture would truly have an alternative best use. The US is a vast country with low density and abundant fertile land. The US can exploit this vast resource with an ever smaller labor force. There is no clear better alternative for the use of such land. Blank suggested as better alternatives: golf courses, nurseries, and turf farms. I am not sure if he was serious when he made those suggestions because it is really challenging to take them seriously. For one thing, those options are invariably a lot more water intensive than even agriculture already is.
In view of all of the above, the end of US agriculture even 12 years after this book was written is not in the cards.