Small-town Bourg near New Orleans boasts sprawling houses and luxury shops, including a motel for pets — it has become a pretty typical model of modern urban sprawl. But Bourg’s history, and what long-time residents would still say that keeps this parish thriving, is agriculture.
Farming feeds people, said farm owner Wallace Ellender, and he wasn’t just speaking of his hometown with a population of about 2,500 people.
“What people don’t realize is that food doesn’t come from grocery stores,” said Ellender of the family-owned Ellender Farms, which has been in business for more than 50 years. “That’s a misconception.” He is also the past president of the American Sugar Cane League based in the neighboring city of Thibodaux, just down the road from Bourg.
Louisiana is the second leading producer of sugar cane in the United States just behind fellow Gulf state Florida. It is a major producer of rice and cotton and the port of New Orleans on the Mississippi Delta is the leading port for agricultural exports.
The 3,000-acre Ellender Farms, one of the oldest sugar cane farms in Bourg, provides employment to about a dozen people, some of them family, including Ellender’s brother and some nephews. “It’s a family farm, we own some, rent some from relatives. But we also have some people working for us,” he said.
About 20 minutes from his house is the manufacturing facility of John Deere in Thibodaux, which produces combines and other harvesting machines mainly for export. About 600 people are employed by the company, Ellender said.
Throughout Louisiana, he said sugar cane farming provides employment to about 16,000 people, contributing $3.5 billion a year to the local economy. “These are people who work in farms, mills, chemical dealerships, who build tractors and sell fertilizers, and so on,” he said.
Ellender noted with a touch of irony how the number of farmers is declining as the population of the United States has increased dramatically. Just 100 years ago, there far were more farmers providing food to the American population. “A very small percentage (of farmers) is feeding the country today, and yet there is a much greater population today,” he said.
That feeling is on the money. U.S. government figures put the country’s population at about 76 million in 1900, and the number of farms at 5.74 million. The number of farms peaked at 6.8 million in 1935 as the country struggled to come out of the Great Depression.
Today the U.S. population is nearly 315 million, and the U.S. Census projects the population to swell to 439 million by 2050. Even with a population north of 310 million, the number of farms has declined to 2.1 million.
Ellender said his grandfather’s family grew everything they consumed. “We learned the hard way,” mused this fifth-generation farmer. “They made little money.”
Agriculture forms the lifeblood of many rural communities, said Darren Hudson, who is director of the Cotton Economics Research Institute in Lubbock, Texas, in the heart of the country’s cotton belt which stretches from Virginia in the east to California in the west.
He said an agricultural economy links farmers, input suppliers, feed and seed dealers, and processors, and related entrepreneurs “like a web” to the larger economy through employment and through the purchases that they and their employees make.
“On the Texas High Plains, for example, agriculture accounts for roughly one-third of the economic output and employment,” said Hudson, also a professor at Texas Tech University’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.
The Texas High Plains, which is widely known for its cotton, is also a significant contributor of corn and milo, peanuts, cattle and dairy products. It is even gaining acclaim for wineries as its elevation and sunny days are conducive to growing grapes.
Among the members of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce are many agriculture-related companies, including agribusiness firms, food manufacturers, equipment and chemical suppliers and consulting services catering to farming concerns.
“Even in an urban center like Lubbock,a good portion of the output and employment is indirectly linked to agriculture through the shopping, eating, healthcare, etc., of those working directly in agriculture,” Hudson explained.
In rural areas around the state, by contrast, more than 90 percent of economic activity is tied to agriculture. “Even things like land values that form taxes for schools and roads, etc., are directly tied to agriculture,” he said.
In the most recent economic crisis, Texas’s rural areas have fared relatively better than the rest of the country. The Farm Bill, and later high commodity prices “helped provide economic stability,” he said. “A city like Lubbock was able to maintain an unemployment rate far below state and national averages during the time.”
Hudson maintained that a “well-reasoned farm policy” fosters economic stability in rural areas in turbulent times, benefiting the communities that draw life from agriculture.