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Machines and genes change pace of US farming

`Technology does have a life of its own that we don't understand very well,' says Thomas N. Urban, chairman and president of Pioneer. `And really, [it's] much less predictable than we think.' There is real progress in biotechnology -- and then again, there isn't, says Nick Frey.

He is seated in the cafeteria of Pioneer Hi-Bred's research facility and grabs a styrofoam cup to make his point.

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Scientists' knowledge about some of nature's basic secrets is expanding rapidly. (On the cup, he draws a graph with a sharply rising line.) But in applying that knowledge, ``we're still down here.'' (A second line only gradually rising.)

``We're all dressed up and nowhere to go,'' says Dr. Frey, director of Pioneer's biotechnology department. It will take several years, he says, before genetic engineering will produce marketable improvements in major commercial crops.

Even so, there is growing interest in the technique. Pioneer, the nation's largest seed corn company, is doubling its biotechnology research facilities. Other companies have entered the field. By one estimate, genetic engineering could add $5.6 billion to annual crop value before the year 2000.

If it does, scientists say, genetic engineering will be another step in an ongoing revolution on the farm.

In this century, technology has transformed American agriculture in dramatic, and sometimes unexpected, ways.

Among the changes:

Machinery has become bigger and better. It largely replaced horses and mules on the farm early in the century. Now, robots are on the verge of entering the barn. Some companies are working on remote-controlled tractors.

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Milk output per cow has risen more than 20 percent over the past decade. A new growth hormone might boost output another 15 to 40 percent. Embryo transfer of genetically superior beef and dairy cattle is increasing. Animal agriculture is where genetic engineering is expected to make its first real contributions.

Plant breeders have made major improvements in crops since the 1930s, boosting yields in grain crops by an average 2 to 3 percent a year. The rewards are not limited to the United States. The five largest wheat producers in the developing world expanded production 5.4 percent a year during the '70s, mostly through boosting yields.

``I cannot believe the changes we've been through,'' says crop farmer John H. Walters, shaking his head. ``It changes so fast all the time.''

If Mr. Walters fits national norms, he produces 80 percent more crops per acre than his father did, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). He supplies enough food and fiber for 76 people where, a decade ago, he supplied only about 50. One hour of his labor today produces 16 times the food and fiber it would have produced per hour in 1921.

Not all of technology's impact on farming was foreseen, however. ``Technology does have a life of its own that we don't understand very well,'' says Thomas N. Urban, chairman and president of Pioneer. ``And really, [it's] much less predictable than we think it is.''

For example, some farmers have become underemployed in part because of today's technology.

Mr. Walters is much more specialized than his family's farm 30 years ago. Until about 1960, the family fed cattle, he says. They kept 1,400 laying hens until the chicken house burned down. They stuck with hogs until the mid-'70s when, like many farmers, they dropped everything to specialize in corn and soybeans. But bigger and faster machinery has given him more free time. During the winter months, he says, he has little to do.

Bigger machinery has also made bigger farms more feasible.

In the 1930s, a quarter of the American population lived on some 7 million farms; today, less than 3 percent live on 2.2 million farms. And only the largest 300,000 to 635,000 are commercial-size operations, which provide the bulk of the nation's food and fiber.

Meanwhile, costs have increased dramatically. Ray De Laigle, an east Georgia cotton farmer, blames his current financial troubles on high production costs.

``That's $500,'' he says, removing a yellow metal casing from a John Deere cotton picker. He holds up the dresser-drawer-size piece and laughs. ``This represents a color TV!''

What has happened is that the technology that made the farmer so productive has also made him very dependent. He buys seed from seed companies. He pays for feed, fertilizer, even groceries, that his grandparents either didn't have or produced on the farm. He calls in a crew to change the large tires on his huge tractors.

``Farming is now nearly completely integrated with the national economy,'' writes Alden Manchester, of the USDA's Economic Research Service. ``Self-sufficiency is a thing of the past.''

During the boom years of the 1970s, this trend was not particularly worrisome. Income was high; so high, in fact, that after lagging for decades, the average farmer's income caught up with that of nonfarmers. Even so, expenses were taking an increasingly large chunk of income. And when the boom went bust in the '80s, the squeeze was severe.

``The real key of the frustration is that in the past, the farmer could offset a lot of this stuff with his labor, putting in long hours,'' says Terry Francl, now director of market analysis for Cargill Investor Services Inc. But ``the labor input is not the crucial element in modern farming.''

Between the 1910-14 period and 1980, farmers' labor and other nonpurchased inputs decreased 48 percent, while purchased inputs increased by a sizable 224 percent, according to the USDA.

Some observers note that farmers are beginning to move back to more diversified, labor-intensive operations. And just as important, many are making efforts to control expenses and market their products better.

``Years ago, my father didn't analyze anything. He just went out every day and worked,'' says John Millar, a western Illinois crop farmer. Now, ``we'll spend more time in the office.''

The introduction of personal computers is expected to aid this process.

``We see farmers who are no longer striving for maximum yield,'' says Mr. Urban of Pioneer. ``They're striving for maximum profit. And those are not necessarily the same thing.'' Note: The Midwest farm economy faces its worst crisis since the depression. Congress will soon begin crafting a new farm bill to help. Starting today on Page 3, the Monitor examines the nature of the crisis and ways to deal with it. MONDAY: Nature of the crisis TUESDAY: Technology's impact on US farms WEDNESDAY: Farming for world markets THURSDAY: Impact of past farm policies FRIDAY: Future policy directions: looking for solutions -- 30 --

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