Forty to fifty years ago, agricultural producers, or farmers, were much more diversified in their production than they are today. A typical 200-acre farm often had 20 cows and/or 20 sows, 25 laying chickens and a family milk cow. You were also likely to find fields of corn, oats and clover hay grown in seasonal rotations primarily to feed the livestock.
There were permanent pastures and groves of trees on the hillsides and in the low spots of the fields. The nearest rural town had no more than 600 people and boosted numerous businesses from car and farm equipment dealers, retailers, grocery and furniture stores, lumber yard, slaughter and butcher shops, a soda fountain shop, various mechanic shops, banks, diners and three full service gas stations.
Ok Moody, let’s leave Mayberry and move forward 50 years!
Today’s farmers specialize in grain production or a specific breed of livestock and have reached almost perfect efficiencies in these production models. The flip side of this is by raising raw farm commodity products like corn, soybeans, hogs, etc., in order to increase profit, one must become more efficient and internally produce more units.
Some may say, “What’s wrong with that? That’s capitalism at work.” In the case of economics, I would agree. However, a strong case can be made that though nature does tolerate local sensitive innovative tweaks in food production systems, she does not recognize capitalism as a long term justifier to drift outside her parameters. And as we all know from the margarine commercial from the 70s, “ …it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
There are two systems: economic and ecologic. Farming is one of the few places these two meet up in the battlefield. Agriculturally, this conflict is evident by the continuous and increased use of external inputs of herbicides, pesticides, genetically modified seeds (in order to withstand the herbicide), higher and higher doses of petroleum-based fertilizers and, in some cases, even irrigation.
On the livestock side of the equation we have placed animals that were once roaming in fields and pastures into climate-controlled buildings. These practices continually push nature as they result in higher uses of pharmaceuticals, vitamin and mineral replacements and, in some cases, continuous use of antibiotics. Though it can be stated these “modern advancements” have allowed fewer farmers to farm more ground while raising more bushels per acre and more head of livestock per square foot, one must look at what lies in the wake of these efficiencies to determine the cost.
What was an attempt to increase farm wealth has only resulted in larger volumes of capital flowing through farmers’ hands. Statistics show that when adjusted for inflation we as a group are making no more than we were in 1969. However, we have become a very good cash flow conduit to the efficiency innovators in the supply and market ends of farming.
And what about Mayberry? Not any better there, either, as now you can only buy beer and gas, which is also where you get your groceries.
Not to worry folks. Next month I’ll lighten the room with life from the soil!