Thinking about National Ag Week
This week is National Agriculture Week, and a time to tip our cap to farmers. Farmers down the road. Farmers a few counties or states over. Farmers in nations with political unrest which can’t be found on the map. Farmers in black and white pictures who look like Dad or Granddad would have looked. And farmers who are newly-minted by community colleges or top-rated Land Grant agriculture schools. They are all important because they produce the food that sustains us day to day.
When Abraham Lincoln worked on his family farm in western Macon County 185 years ago, there wasn’t any neighborhood Kroger, and Casey’s convenience stores certainly did not exist to provide pizza. The cow was milked, eggs were gathered, some wheat and corn were harvested, and an uncountable number of wild animals provided fresh meat. Yes, there are a few folks like that today in remote areas of the US who want to avoid society, but most everyone else would rather take advantage of today’s remarkable agricultural industry that provides food, fuel, and fiber.
Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, the least of any country. In return they enjoy a food supply that is abundant, affordable, and among the world’s safest. That is not the case in the rest of the world where food is more expensive, and food safety exists only in tourist areas. The global population will be demanding more food, as it grows to 9 billion in the next 35 years, so abundant food will be required and the world is looking toward the US to meet that challenge.
While there are two million US farms, the way USDA defines a farm, the heart of the watermelon is populated by 210,000 full time commercial farmers who produce 80% of the food moving though farm to market channels. You know them. You go to church with them. Shake their hand and give them a pat on the back for a job well done.
That typical farmer feeds 155 people. Assemble that many in your backyard sometime for a picnic, and you realize why farms are growing in size, why farm equipment takes up more than half of the roadway, and winter time television commercials frequently promote herbicides and other crop protection chemicals. It is big business, and it has to be because that farmer only pockets about a dime for every dollar you spend on food. With such narrow margins, profitability comes only with volume.
In the last 35 years, farm productivity has increased to such a degree that it has brought star wars technology to every farm field and every tractor. In that period of time agricultural productivity has increased 96%, yields have climbed 55%, and the number of planted acres has increased 24%.
But to do that, farmers have had to take care of the precious soil that produces your food. Three out of four have indicated they have taken action to improve the quality of their soil. In the past 30 years, soil erosion has fallen 66%, use of irrigation water has declined 42%, energy use on farms has dropped 48%, and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture has been cut 49%.
But to reduce inputs, while increasing outputs, agriculture has made a concerted shift to employ biotechnology. In 2014, 18 million farmers in 28 countries raised biotech crops, which helped 16.5 million of them escape poverty by increasing yields. Those farmers also saved 325 million acres from being newly cultivated because less land was needed to produce food. And while doing that, their yields increased by 22%.
When you take a bite of food this week, thank a farmer.
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