A few days ago I was watching an interesting commercial on TV. An old farmer standing out in a field somewhere in the Midwest was reminiscing about the joys of life in rural America. In the background, a large combine was slowly doing its work. The old farmer nodded at the combine and talked about how proud he was that he had passed on some of his traditional values; the inference of course, was that his son was piloting the combine.
The son suddenly appeared next to the farmer who spluttered “Hey, wait a minute! Who’s driving the combine?”
Cut to the steering wheel and we find some cute little cartoon critters driving the combine.
And in a quick 30 second nutshell of a commercial, the mythical small family farm – the one with a picket fence out front, a perfectly kept red barn in the back and a few lovingly tended farm critters roaming around the back 40 – was laid to rest.
Modern farming is not the misty-eyed nostalgia of the good old days. It can’t be. And like all bits and pieces of nostalgia, the times way back then weren’t nearly as good as memory serves (cue Barbra Streisand, “Memories….”). Most people have an uncanny ability to think back on hard times and remember all the fun they had while they struggled through it.
Back when America was predominately rural – before the stampede to urban centers really began after WWII – a farmer could feed only a handful of people. As more people migrated to the big cities in search of a better life, agriculture needed to become much more efficient. Fewer people producing food means they must become a lot better at what they do or our urban centers starve. A farmer tilling the soil in 1960 could feed about 2 dozen people. Today he or she can feed at least one hundred more.
So, following the strictest rules of the free enterprise system, companies like DeKalb and Monsanto began researching more efficient seed. John Deere, Massey Ferguson and Ford are a few of the heavy equipment companies, an odd international list that includes Kubota and even Lamborghini, now a manufacturer of very expensive sports cars.
Those companies started with the basics, of course. Anyone who remembers a Farmall knows the early days of farm mechanization were just a few steps better than a mule and almost as reliable. And seed corn choices were simple - white or yellow?
OK, maybe I’m over simplifying, but agriculture took small steps in the early days, limited perhaps by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl that came with it, decimating American agriculture and hastening the decline of our rural population. What was a slow movement during the first quarter of the twentieth century became a torrent as the Midwestern breadbasket threatened to dry up and blow away.
Reviving a world destroyed by WWII began with staving off massive famine by finding better ways to feed millions. The Far East was losing huge chunks of its population because there was no food and very little infrastructure to transport what they could grow to the urban centers that desperately needed it. The Borlaug revolution helped solve a disaster that might have threatened the lives of more people as half a dozen years of world war.
Along with it came another possibly more important than evolution – mechanization and hybrid seed. Not only could we grow much more food per acre with less fertilizer and water, but we could harvest it much faster and get it to market within days instead of weeks. Those improvements have been phenomenal, especially in the last half century.
In 1960 American farmers harvested 54.7 bushels of corn per acre. In 2009, they were harvesting 161.9 bushels per acre. Soybean harvest soared from 23.7 bushels to 76.8 bushels. Tripling production in less than one lifetime is an incredible example of a green revolution. The scientists and engineers who created it should be awarded medals and honored by every major food and agricultural organization in America.
Instead, we’re subjugated to an incredible cacophony of pseudo-scientists, elitist foodies and chicken littles that look at fields aplenty and cry that the sky is falling. New York Times chief romanticizer of the good old ag days and professional food industry crepe hanger, Mark Bittman, can still enjoy “a farm dinner in Maine. . . a long table of 60 people eating corn, chicken, salad, a spectacular herb sorbet and other goodies” or attend “a fund-raiser on Cape Cod a week or so earlier, (where) the talk was all about the provenance of the produce and meat rather than the cooking technique.”
But he has to understand the provenance of produce and meat was on the table because of the hard work done in the latter half of the twentieth century by too many scientists to mention. Friend of the Farmer reports farmers today can produce 262% more food with 2% fewer inputs. I’m not sure that’s a perfectly accurate statement but I have no doubt the long-term trend is strongly in that direction. It’s nice that the wealthy of the world can eat well but they’ve always managed to put a pheasant on the table and some fine wine in the glass.
The real problem throughout history has been the less wealthy, starting with the very poor. Feeding the masses is hard work and the world has often failed in that pursuit. It’s the vast improvements made by modern agriculture that have turned that historical tide and greatly reduced famine. For a few people, most of them very well-fed, to question the intent of people who managed to feed millions through valid scientific advances is simply wrong. It’s like pouring a fine beurre blanc sauce over the hand that’s feeding them and then biting it.
Thanksgiving is just a few short weeks away and I will be celebrating the people and the companies that have put so much more food on the table during the last half century. I will acknowledge that some of the advances haven’t been all they should have been but that’s the direct line of history. We will always go forward, even if we trip from time-to-time. Assigning the role of “evil” to scientific advancement is one of those “trips” that we must never accept.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.