Sometimes you can get illustrations on competing visions of American agriculture in places you would least expect. 

For me, it was in two towns I visited on a recent trip to Portugal. They provided a good illustration of what American agriculture is today and the stifling vision that many activists have for the way they think farming should be.

One town was Porto, a port city on Portugal’s north coast. It was bursting with activity — streets full of cars and sidewalks packed with pedestrians well into the evening.

Porto has a beautiful historic section, but you could tell it was a dynamic city, with modern buildings, a subway system and thriving businesses.

The other, Obidos, was a quaint, walled city that had been declared a historic site decades back. That meant the town could not be altered or changed, so everything was frozen in time and maintained to look as it did a century ago.

Obidos was a lively place during the day, as tourists filled the cobblestone streets, checked out the sights and visited shops. But at night after the tour buses had departed, the town seemed to empty, and commerce came to a screeching halt. There was almost an eerie quality to it, like an empty stage set.

Vision for agriculture

Today’s American agriculture is a lot like Porto. It values the past but continues to move forward using new technology, such as biotech crops, modern livestock barns, drones and GPS, to increase efficiency, boost production and reduce its environmental footprint. Yet there’s room for all types of farmers. Those who raise commodity crops and livestock coexist with those who target local and specialty markets.

Still, a lot of folks seem to be pushing for a farming sector that is stuck in time, like the town of Obidos. They criticize today’s agriculture, claim the old ways were always better and say there’s room for only one type of farming: growing food for local markets.

So which vision is the better one for American agriculture? In my view, it’s absolutely no contest.

I’m certain that the first vision — a dynamic, progressive and inclusive farm sector — is better for consumers, both local and those all around the world, and for the environment.