I was talking to a friend last week about the work Bob Berrens and I are doing for our new book on the origin stories of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
I’m deep into a chapter on the failed 1920s efforts at tobacco farming (I’ve told that story before here), and we were talking about the failure when my friend asserted that, despite the failure of tobacco, “agricultural production is a significant contributor to the local economy”.
When I pointed out that, according to the relevant government measures, net income from farming (revenue from the stuff farmers sell minus the cost to grow it) is generally negative, it gave my friend pause.
Getting defensive, my friend thrashed around a bit for reasons for the whole net negative income thing – high input costs, low crop prices, competition from other agricultural regions. But the more we talked, the more my friend came to realize that things like “net cash farm income” are maybe the wrong measure for the societal benefit we’re talking about.
I was scribbling as fast as I can, so don’t take this as a literal verbatim quote of my friend’s thoughts, but I think this roughly captures the trajectory of their thinking:
The non-market values of agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande are numerous and include environmental, social, cultural, and recreational benefits that are not captured by traditional market-based measures of economic activity. Some examples of non-market values of agriculture in the region include:
- Environmental benefits: Agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande can provide a range of environmental benefits, including the maintenance of soil health and fertility, the preservation of local biodiversity, and the sequestration of carbon. Additionally, the preservation of agricultural land can help to reduce the risk of soil erosion, improve water quality, and protect natural habitats.
- Social benefits: Agriculture is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of many communities in the Middle Rio Grande. It provides a sense of place and identity, and can foster social cohesion and community engagement. Additionally, agriculture can provide opportunities for education and skill-building, particularly for youth and marginalized populations.
- Cultural benefits: Agriculture is an important part of the cultural heritage of the Middle Rio Grande, particularly through the practice of acequia irrigation, which has been used in the region for centuries. The preservation of traditional agricultural practices can help to maintain cultural diversity and identity, as well as promote intergenerational knowledge transfer.
- Recreational benefits: The agricultural landscape of the Middle Rio Grande can also provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. This includes activities such as hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife viewing, as well as agro-tourism and farm-to-table experiences.
These non-market values are an important aspect of agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande, and they should be taken into consideration when assessing the broader social and ecological impacts of the agricultural sector. By recognizing and valuing these non-market benefits, policymakers and stakeholders can work to ensure that the region’s agricultural practices are sustainable and equitable, and that they support the long-term health and well-being of local communities and ecosystems.
I think my friend’s on to something.