New technologies and farming are linked in countless ways. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act that established our land grant colleges; one of their primary missions was researching and teaching the agricultural arts. Many of our greatest institutions of higher education are a creation of that legislation; the Universities of California, Illinois, and Ohio State are just a few examples.
These colleges were not just ivory towers. They conducted research that had real value for farmers, and invented systems of technology transfer that got it to the farm. Of course it was not called technology transfer; it was called The Cooperative Extension Service or adult education or some other name, but it was all about helping farmers adopt the newest technology. I have great memories as a youngster of attending “Agronomy Day” at the University of Illinois research farm, and observing world class scientists talking about what they do to an audience of farmers dressed in their work clothes. It was not just a lecture; those scientists got immediate and often blunt feedback. That tradition of sharing between science and agriculture continues today.
As technology available to farmers changed, so did farmers and society. Tractors replaced horses and human labor. Hybrid seed and biotechnology increased yields. Pesticides reduced crop losses from insects, diseases and weeds. All these advances make farmers more efficient. Better efficiency means that fewer farmers are able to produce more on less acres. Corn only yielded about 25 bushels per acre when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act; in 2005 our national yield was over 147 bushels per acre. If we used 1860’s technology to grow the 11 billion bushels of corn produced in 2005 it would require adding the combined land masses of Texas, New York, California and Michigan to our current production acreage. Imagine the amount of forests, parks and other sensitive lands that would have to come under the plow.
It is not just about land. If it took the same percentage of our population to grow today’s crops and livestock as it did in the 1860’s, tens of millions people that are now teachers, doctors, engineers or employed in some other way would need to work as farmers. Imagine the social costs and reduced standard of living we would enjoy.
This transformation of agriculture did not occur over a few short years, or because of any one invention. It happened because the best technology of the day was adapted to the farm, day after day, season after season, year after year. That is just what good farmers do.
Our mission at Truth about Trade and Technology is to inform, and I am proud to introduce one very small piece of technology today that will help us with that mission. This is the first editorial that will be available as a podcast. Podcasts are small computer files that can be easily downloaded to your computer or audio player that allow you to listen to recordings when and where you want. You can download individual podcasts from our web site, or subscribe to them thru iTunes software and have new podcasts download to your device automatically as they become available. You can buy an adapter that will attach your audio player to a pickup truck or tractor radio. All it takes is a cigarette lighter power source. Some new vehicles are already equipped to work with Apple’s iPod.
By the way, if you have questions about podcasting, check with any available teenager.
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John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).