Environment and Economic Development and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

EYE ON THE PIE: Do we need agriculture department?

March 14, 2005

Indiana's General Assembly reflects Hoosier values. It wants to make us more like other states. If others have daylight-saving time, so should we. This is called progress. If others have a Department of Agriculture, so should we. This, too, is called progress.

The idea that we should differentiate ourselves from others, that we should find new solutions to problems, is not examined. Let's look at House Bill 1008, which would create an Indiana Department of Agriculture. This proposal was given little thought. How can I say that? It passed the House by a 97-0 vote on Feb. 22 and now awaits action in the Senate.

Fundamentally, the bill combines various agricultural matters into a Department of Agriculture and an Office of Rural Affairs, both reporting to the lieutenant governor. Also included in the bill are functions related to energy and recycling. The bill applies, as I read it (and I confess to not being expert in reading state legislation), to cities and towns with less than 10,000 population and rural areas, which are not defined.

The idea is to give economic-development concerns of agriculture and rural areas a specific place at the table. One must presume they would be ignored without this special treatment. But why would our newly constituted Indiana Economic Development Corp. not pay attention to agriculture and value-added activities based on agriculture? Why must we have a new department for this purpose?

Among farmers and some environmentalists, there is great concern that we are gobbling up acreage for urban uses. If that is a legitimate concern, we should have a Department of Land Use that would study more efficient ways to employ our state's most valuable, immobile resource-land.

If we want to save our land for agriculture, we must change the way we live in our cities. A Department of Land Use would focus on the distribution of housing and industry within our state. It would have domain over the planning of airports, highways, sewers, water lines, subdivisions, sanitary landfills and other major uses of our land. Such a department would be an advocate for recycling and for compact urban form to move us away from the sprawl that characterizes our current land use and threatens agriculture. It would advocate urban and inter-urban transportation programs to make our cities more livable and to reduce our energy consumption.

Instead, we get a Department of Agriculture, which is focused on just one use of land. In this formulation, it is assumed cities of 10,000 or fewer persons are rural, which is often not true for suburban communities.

Further, the interests of small, rural towns today may be at odds with the interests of agriculture. The economic health and growth of such places may not be consistent with intensified agricultural development. The same is true in reverse. It may be in the best interest of agriculture to eliminate small towns that stand in the way of larger, more efficient and integrated agricultural units. For example, if a livestock operation is to grow, maybe the residents of a nearby town should be relocated.

Commerce in its many forms is best handled by an agency devoted to its welfare. We now have that in the IEDC. Agriculture is a business, a part of commerce. It should not be separated from the IEDC. Likewise, land use requires a comprehensive overview, not a fragmented approach to a complex economic and social concern.

Maybe the Senate will consider these thoughts when it examines HB 1008.



Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mmarcus@ibj.com.
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