Wow, what a 50-year run for ag! But beware of complacency
The author believes complacency in the ag industry was an issue years ago, but it's improved along with a host of contributors.
My junior high science textbook contained a fun short section that speculated on what the next 50 years would bring. Among the possibilities mentioned were manned bases on Mars and large-scale deepwater exploration of the world's vast oceans. Well, 51 years have passed and the oceans' depths remain largely a mystery and there are no humans on Mars. Instead, we have such "achievements" as vaping, Qanon and a former president urging that the Constitution be terminated. Sigh.
But U.S. agriculture has done remarkable things in the past 50 years. Our farmers and ranchers produce more food than ever and on less land to boot. New housing development, strip malls and golf courses continue to gnaw on once-productive farmland, but much higher yields more than offset that. One example: Average U.S. per-acre soybean yields rose from from 27.5 bushels in 1971 to 51.5 bushels in 2018. Yields of most other crops have risen greatly, too, as has the amount of meat produced from one head of livestock.
Who or what gets the credit? Today's farmers and ranchers on average are better educated than their parents, which certainly helps. (They're not smarter or more determined than dad and mom, though.) Today's ag producers benefit greatly from better tools and technology, everything from more efficient equipment to improved seed and pesticides. Modern ag researchers, ag engineers and industry professionals such as agronomists deserve a ton of credit for their work.
Our collective understanding of precious topsoil and how to conserve and keep it productive has vastly improved from 50 years ago, too. A half-century ago, progressive farmers certainly understood the need to preserve topsoil. But only a few producers really understood that soil is a living organism which needs to be nurtured.
Even as a little kid, I hated to see wind and water eat away at topsoil. It wasn't until 2005/2006, though, that I began to figure out the living organism aspect. Drop me a line and let me know when you first realized it.
Federal support and more
And let's face it: Federal farm support programs definitely have helped ag over the past 50 years. The programs have enabled many farmers to overcome occasional crop years with poor yields or poor prices or both.
Ag also has been aided by greater workforce diversity in recent years. The role of minorities and women has grown, bringing more talent to the sector. That's a good thing.
Four or five years ago, I talked with a veteran farmer who worried that complacency was infecting agriculture. Farmers and others had seen so much productivity gain that many had become nonchalant, assuming the gains would occur automatically, he said. No, he stressed, constant effort is needed, with more funding for ag research especially important. There was truth in his view, it seemed to me.
My take now is that complacency is less widespread than it had been. The arrival of highly dangerous super-weeds in the area — Palmer amaranth among them — has reinforced the common-sense notion that agriculturalists shouldn't take anything for granted. Covid's harmful impact on the ag supply chain also cut into the complacency.
I don't know whether we'll have manned bases on Mars or conduct intensive deep water ocean exploration 50 years from now. But I'm confident that ag can continue to innovate and improve. Complacency remains a danger, but we-don't-know-it-all humility and willingness to spend on ag research will limit the threat.
If we keep working at it, the best is yet to come for U.S. ag.
Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.