Original Post: 12 July 2008
I’ve spent the last couple weeks in Iowa with my five siblings, going through a farmhouse full of papers, furniture and mementos collected over the last 75 years of my parents’ life (Mom passed away in 2000, Dad on 31 December 2007). This led me to reflect upon changes on the farm over the last 50 years: High tech – and “no tech” – has definitely reached agriculture.
You can find plenty of news articles on this in the popular press. Use of global positioning systems (GPS), low-or-no-till farming (the “plow” is obsolete and the cultivator is going there – more here), organic farming, self-guided tractors are examples of both high-tech and no-tech.
In Iowa, there is an explosion in the use of corn to make ethanol to use in gasoline, and soybeans can be used to make biodiesel fuel. But the reality of what is happening – “in the dirt” of central Iowa, at least – is a bit different. The most significant changes I observed on and near my brother’s farm near Waterloo are these:
• Land prices are skyrocketing. Prime Iowa farmland which was worth $2500 or so an acre three years ago is now going for $5000, $6000 or even $8000. This is a direct result of the use of crops for ethanol and biodiesel. These prices CANNOT be supported by income, as cash rents are $180 a year (yet the 30 year mortgage payment on $5000 is $300 a year or more). Only corporations or farmers with existing mortgage-free land can purchase such acreage.
• I personally think these prices are a “flash in the pan” and will come down over the next few years as other, alternative, energy sources such as power from wind/waves, biodiesel from grasses or marginal crops, fuel-cells etc. are developed. In the meantime, farmers will either profit or suffer.
• Tractors self-guided by GPS are in use, but are cost effective only for the largest farmers. Such technology allows straighter rows and better use of the land. GPS can also be used to precisely measure yields at each part of the field, thereby allowing more precise application of the right mix of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Again, you have to have a large farming operation to justify such technology.
• According to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture – yes they use acronyms in farming too!), the average Iowa farm is 350 acres, which squares with my personal experience. But the the most successful farmers are tilling 1000 or 1500 acres or more. It probably takes farming 2000 to 3000 acres to justify some of these high-tech expenses.
• The most interesting trends, to me, are organic farming of very small farms (a few acres), more extensive use of waterways to reduce erosion, no-till farming, and concentration on crops (rather than livestock). Organic farming is exciting because many farms still extensively use pesticides and herbicides. Traditional farming is a very petroleum-intensive industry – diesel for tractors, fertilizers (pesticides, herbicides) made from oil, and so forth. That’s why using corn or soybeans to make ethanol or biodiesel is not efficient. And pesticides/herbicides can be damaging to the environment and to health, probably causing cancers (four of the eight members of my family have had serious cancers).
• When I grew up on our Iowa farm in the 1950’s and 60’s, we had corn, soybeans, hay, oats, a large garden, milk cow, hogs, chickens (for eggs and meat), and even sheep. Nowadays about the only livestock on most farms are a dog and cats (plus raccoons, fox, squirrels, possum’s, doves and owls).
Nevertheless, I’m very pleased to see improved prices for farm commodities. I’ll leave you one more statistic: in 1960 farmers received $1.03 for a bushel of corn, in 2006 it was $2.36. Check the price of anything else (and specifically gasoline, tractors, food, etc.). Source: University of Illinois
Farmers deserve some good times.