Farming to change, but it will remain

     What farmer in 1776, drawing upon a century and a half of colonial experience, could imagine the world of the 20th century farmer?
     He would have been too occupied with circumstances of his day to see underlying trends that would produce agriculture of the 1900s. He was in the midst of a six-year war for independence.

Taming wilderness

     Thee was a continent-spanning wilderness to be brought under cultivation. It was without roads, schools, hospitals or even basic amenities of life. Judging from technology of his time, the early American farmer would have expected to wrest new farms from this wilderness by his own muscle with only hand tools.
     History tells how the American farmer survived and prospered, using methods he did not foresee to overcome obstacles he could not anticipate. He transformed a wilderness into an agricultural plant of unparalleled efficiency. But his problems today seem no less formidable than those of 1776.

New problems

     They are different problems, of course: pollution of the environment, threatened shortages of energy and raw materials, a burgeoning world population pressing on food supplies, the frenetic pace of technological change.
     They are different problems, of course: pollution of the environment, threatened shortages of energy and raw materials, a burgeoning world population pressing on food supplies, the frenetic pace of technological change.
     We are warned of new ice ages or of encroaching deserts. And always there is the underlying fear of nuclear holocaust.
     Although we have vastly greater information resources to draw on, the future yields its secrets no more willingly than in the past.

Fear of failure

     But fear of failure should not deter us.
     Let us begin on the side of the optimists. Scientists tell us the world probably is some four billion years old, that human beings have been on earth for perhaps five million years and that agriculture began about 10,000 years ago.
     So, it seems reasonable to project that during the next 200 years, hardly and eyeblink in the larger context of time, the world will neither freeze nor fry nor choke nor starve nor blow itself up.
     What do knowledgeable people think agriculture will be line 100 to 200 years from now?
     In most cases, thoughts are in technological terms. What kind of farm machinery? Will we be taking our food in the form of concentrated pills? Will we all be computerized? Will we have achieved artificial photosynthesis?

Bane or benefactor?

     Science and technology will no doubt remain dominant in agriculture for many years to come. But even now previous unquestioned acceptance of science and technology as benefactor of the human race is being challenged.
     Science and technology will increasingly be asked to show broad-scale benefits to the human race.
     We are likely to make better use of technological competence in the years ahead, and strike a better balance between things material and things of the heart, the mind and the spirit.
     But science and technology will still be important.

Wrong side up

     The plow, symbol of agriculture during the first 200 years of our country, will gradually be returned. We will rediscover the wisdom of the Indian, who commented the first time he saw a plowed field: "Wrong side up."
     Wind and water erosion caused by the plow is incalculable. We will learn to grow crops using minimum tillage. We will learn to control weeds with chemicals that are biodegradable.
     What is left of our soil we will try to keep in place rather than send it flying through the air and drifting down the river.

Possible breakthrough

     Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz says trying for a scientific breakthrough is like drilling for oil-you never know whether you are five feet from a million dollars or a million feet from $5.
     Here are some things that might happen:
     Upgrading protein content of cereal grains and other crops.
     Hybridizing of additional crops, including wide crosses like triticale.
     Biological rather than chemical control of harmful insects and diseases.

Killing flies

     Control of the tsetse fly, the vector of sleeping sickness in Africa, thereby opening vast areas for agricultural use.
     Successful long-range weather prediction and modification.
     Use of satellites for worldwide crop reporting.
     Extension of the principle of nitrogen fixation to new groups of plants, in addition to legumes, thus cutting the need for commercial fertilizer.
     Desalinization of sea water, permitting human habitation and agricultural production in lands now unused.
     Conquest of the fuel problem, probably by use of nuclear energy.
     Greater environmental control for both plants and animals, providing more economical production and higher, more standardized quality.

Plant protein

     Advances in food technology, particularly modification of plant protein to provide meat-like foods to millions who cannot afford those from animals.
     Use of microbial action on various feedstocks (such as organic wastes or fossil fuels) for direct production for feed and food.
     Systems of distribution to minimize twin problems of overeating and poverty-related malnutrition.
     Improved understanding of relationships so computers will give us more sense and less nonsense.
     Most important of all, advances in family planning and greater public acceptance of the replacement-sized family so mankind might move from under the Malthusian shadow.

Loss of uniqueness

     Agriculture will lose its uniqueness. The farm/non-farm delineation, basic to an understanding of economic, social and political events, will become blurred. Delineating between farm and non-farm will have little more relevance than dividing the present economy into businessmen and non-businessmen.
     It will be difficult to tell what is a farm and what is not. Farm production will be merged with acquisition of input items and processing, transporting, financing, merchandising and consumption.
     A mixed farming system will emerge. There will be large-scale integrated units, the forerunners of which we already see in the west and South. The family farmer, already under considerable strain, will slowly and reluctantly give up his historic role of supplying all the factors of production: land, capital and management.
     Production of crops and livestock will require farms so large-so much land, capital and managerial skill-that a single person will be unlikely to supply them all.
     In commercial agriculture, the nearest thing to the family farmer will be a farm operator who lives on the land with his family, rents his farm, borrows his money and hires his labor.

Part-time farms

     Besides farms that produce most of the crops and livestock there will be part-time farms, combining production of food and off-farm jobs with rural living.
     For the first 200 years as a nation we flocked to the city. For the next 20 years we probably will look toward the country as a place to live. Its warmer personal relationships, cleaner air and water, greater privacy and greater social stability will look better and better.
     We will be able, in rural areas, to provide most social services and utilities formerly found only in cities.
     The first 200 years we spent cutting trees; the next 100 years we will spend planting them. We will put trees on lands which were deforested to be farmed, lands with slopes too steep for modern farm equipment or too poor to compete with more productive lands that will be kept in annual crops.

Protect public interest

     During most of the past 200 years we sought to get the public domain into private ownership, and to a large measure succeeded. Henceforth we shall be trying to identify and protect the public interest in these privately owned lands.
     Is the competitive market to continue as the major, if not sole, determinant of how these lands are to be used? Whether they will be used for cropping, grazing, timber, mining, recreation, industry, residential uses, highways, airports, wildlife, watershed protection or flood prevention?
     We are in a transitional phase in land policy. This will be a major issue during the years ahead.

Market orientation

     For commodity programs in agriculture, the recent trend has been away from strong government decision-making and in the direction of market orientation.
     It may be the high tide of government involvement in production and pricing of farm products was reached some 10 years ago, and the years ahead will see commodity policies more in keeping with our countries tradition.
     What of the recent rash of causes that have arisen in agriculture-consumerism, the drive for ecological betterment and opposition to food additives? No doubt these drives will continue and some good things will be accomplished.
     As a final assessment, we turn to the Book of Genesis for this long-term agricultural outlook statement: "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter shall not cease."
     That forecast has been good for about 3,000 years. It seems not overly presumptuous to extend it for 100 more.

--Don Paarlberg
USDA Director of Economics

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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