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Ohio Farm Competitiveness: Decline in the offing?

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Written Friday, October 09, 1998  

Production data for the last half of the century indicate that Ohio agriculture could be in the midst of a competitiveness decline.

Ohio State ag economist Carl Zulauf says Ohio's share of U.S. production has been steadily dropping for corn, wheat and soybeans.

"Competitive advantage is something very difficult to change," he says. "Once you start to lose it, it's very hard to turn around."

Furthermore, the nation's ag policy is entrenched in the market economy, he says. Industries that do best are those that compete best.

Zulauf found that Ohio's share of the nation's corn and soybean production declined, respectively, by 23 percent and 9.5 percent when comparing data for 1948-53 to 1993-97. In addition, Ohio's share of wheat production declined by 38.9 percent between those two periods.

A stunning decline was Ohio's average corn yield, which was 34 percent higher than the nation's for the 1948-52 period. Ohio's average yield was only 1 percent higher than the nation's for 1993-97.

Ohio's average soybean yield was 1 percent above the national average for 1948-52, and 7 percent above the nation's for 1993-97. The wheat yield was 33 percent above the national average for 1948-52, while it was 46 percent above the nation's for 1993-97.

"You have to be willing to entertain the question, 'Is Ohio agriculture losing its competitive advantage?'" Zulauf says. "Not to entertain that question is to miss a potential warning signal."

Zulauf recommends that a state-level task force be formed to look at the issue. Some general reasons might be: genetic differences in crop hybrids, microclimate changes, past government policy, or shifts in the state's farming structure toward part-time producers.

Zulauf says Ohio's competitiveness problems have taken a back seat to the environment and urbanization of farmland. While they are important, they should be discussed with competitiveness, he says.

Competitiveness, the environment and urbanization can actually enhance each other, he says. For example, increased yields and production can take environmentally sensitive lands out of production.

To be competitive, Ohio must think of agriculture as a coalition rather than as separate commodities and farm organizations, Zulauf says. And the coalition must be broad-based enough to include nonfarm special interest groups, he says. "This is not about protecting what we have. Everyone has to be willing to build a coalition with a new vision that addresses what do we want and how do we get there."

Without action, Ohio agriculture's future might be radically different, Zulauf says. Declining competitiveness may means more urbanization and more idled agricultural lands, he says.

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