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.