Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America, tells participants at the Symposium on Value-added Agriculture that 75 percent of rural U.S. counties are in economic trouble. Photo:Brad Haire The future of American agriculture is in jeopardy unless farmers have a way to add value to the crops they grow and bring consumers closer to the farm gate.Scientists, farmers and farm policy makers from around the country gathered in Tifton, Ga., Dec. 13-14 to discuss new ideas on how to accomplish this and put dollars back into the rural economy.Subpar Rural Economies”Economic gains are uneven across America. And you see the lowest growth in areas where we grow commodity agriculture,” said Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. Despite $104 billion in government payments in the 1990s, three out of four farm counties in the United States had subpar economies, Drabenstott told participants at the Symposium on Value-added Agriculture.The future will have two types of agriculture, he said: conventional, commodity-type farming and new, product-oriented agriculture. This new approach will have to grow, develop and market products the consumer wants.”Commodity agriculture will persist. But the biggest payoff for rural America lies in products (to sell),” he said.Such ideas include renewable energy sources derived from crops, nutraceutical crops, farmer-owned co-ops or any way to put farmers’ products on the grocery shelf.Rural DevelopmentThe future of agriculture doesn’t lie solely on the farm, he said. Rural areas will have to be developed through equity capital, the encouragement of local entrepreneurs and the infusion of technical assistance into “Main Street” America.”Rural America has chased the smokestacks (for too long),” Drabenstott said. “Growing your own is much more viable.”Tough Business”Growing commodities right now is tough business,” said Gale Buchanan, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “If we can add value to these commodities and add dollars to the farm, it would not only help the farmers but those communities where they live. Agriculture has a significant economic impact on the entire state, but especially the rural communities that depend on it.””Growers must be innovative and progressive at times like these,” said Randy Hudson, director of the UGA Emerging Crops and Technologies program.Drabenstott said, jokingly, that one of the biggest problems facing this new value-added agriculture is getting 200 farmers in the same room to agree on something. But, he said, it can be done.The symposium was sponsored by the UGA CAES and the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. The strategies and findings of the symposium were presented to key members of the Georgia legislature.