When I started farming in the early ’70s, my first planter was a John Deere 6-row – all metal boxes and light frame. Herbicide and insecticide was banded, applied over the row.
We still mechanically cultivated so we were more concerned about the weeds in the row, applying granular Ramrod or Atrazine. I remember Furadan insecticide.
Before this modern technology was adopted, farmers struggled with weed control. 2-4D killed broadleaves, but grass was still a problem, compounded by herbicide carryover problems, damaging crops the next year in rotation.
Treflan was a breakthrough for weed control in soybeans, but we weren’t able to declare victory until herbicide resistant seed genetics came onto the market. Weed control was the primary limitation to crop production. When you had to cultivate two or three times and hire summer labor to walk soybeans, the scale of operations was typically limited to family resources. That’s why some families had 10 kids.
Today, biotechnology has ushered in a new era of agriculture. One advantage in Brazil is that it is so new that they never went through the old era. We have quarter sections fenced off in Iowa, in part, because that was considered to be an efficient-sized farm. That farm might have 40 acres of corn, 40 acres of oats, 40 acres of alfalfa and eventually 40 acres of soybeans. The rotation further diluted the weed control problem.
In Brazil, they opened huge tracks of land unimpeded by the practical restraints that U.S. agriculture developed under. Not only did they have access to new technology, but had low-cost human resources available, too. U.S. farmers of my generation have seen an amazing agricultural advancement in process and productivity. The advancement of that development has been accelerated in Brazil.
There, it’s sort of like starting with cell phones, never having had to bury any land lines. They skipped over old technology. I have never seen a row crop cultivator in Brazil. The leading edge of ag technology is still in the U.S. but globalization allows its immediate adaptation in a connected world.
Today we till much less so that soil erosion is almost a thing of the past. We control pests with chemicals through genetic resistance. We use less quantity and toxicity of insecticides and herbicides.
Most local farmers don’t even own a tractor cultivator any more, other than possibly an antique buried in a corner of the old machine shed. Walking beans has become a thing of the past. We better manage our fertilizer inputs so with the total management package produce significantly more bushels per pound of N-P-K.
Carbon input per bushel output is improving as is all other trends of sustainability. That extends to livestock management where manure is treated today as a valuable crop input. Whereas, 40 years ago, hog farmers hoped for a big rain to flush outside feed floors.
I can’t think of a trend of sustainability that has not gotten better. The farmer’s footprint has gotten significantly lighter on the environment while bushels in the wagon have gotten heavier. There is no crisis of sustainability, no alarms going off from agriculture that were not already ringing in green extremist’s ears, who could never be satisfied.
We have a sustainable agriculture and it is becoming ever more sustainable with every new advance in technology. That’s good, because it has to in order to feed the growing global population without becoming a financial burden on consumers lowering their standard of living.
Agriculture needs a mission statement. My suggestion would be that “Agriculture’s mission is to produce healthy, bountiful food in a sustainable manner, so that people can devote fewer financial resources to their nutritional requirements, giving them more energy and resources to devote to cultural and technological development, ‘arts and science’, raising standards of living, advancing the human race.”
Increasing agricultural production at an affordable cost relative to the world’s growing population is “our mission.” The cost in consumer disposable income necessary to buy food is trending lower, steadily and surely, as ag sustainability is trending higher, just as steadily and surely.
Then why is it that a desire to return agriculture to the state I described it as being in the 1960’s has become politically correct? Many want to jump back in time, rejecting current technology and the biotechnology advances of the future.
No ag system is sustainable unless it feeds all the people all the time. No ag system is sustainable unless people can afford to buy the food. No ag system is sustainable unless the human race improves its standard of living. The premise that today’s ag system somehow results in an intolerable environmental footprint couldn’t be more off base.
Agriculture’s sustainability has tracked its productivity growth. We have not sacrificed sustainability for productivity – quite the opposite.
Corn Belt agriculture has already achieved sustainability. Instead of celebrating the success of our ag system, USDA attitude now reflects the distorted historical revisionists who reject technology.
Make no excuses, organic production rejects technology and all the advancement in agriculture since the 1960’s. It even rejects the biotechnology that advances sustainability. It is a throwback to the dark ages that doesn’t comply with my mission statement for agriculture. It would destroy it.
David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.
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