A stone bridge spans the river that divides the Turkish city of Adana.

Taskopru is a symbol of Adana the way the Golden Gate Bridge is a symbol of San Francisco—and while it first made me think about history, it later taught me a lesson about farming’s future.

When I spotted the arched bridge in November, on a visit to participate in an agricultural conference, I was struck by the absence of vehicles. People walked across this major crossing point but neither cars nor trucks traveled there.

I asked the concierge at my hotel about the bridge. He said that the Romans built it long ago.

It turns out that not even scholars are sure when the bridge went up, but some attribute its construction to the emperor Hadrian, who is perhaps better know for the wall that stretches across northern England. He ruled from 117 to 138 A.D.

Whatever the details, it’s an ancient bridge and it’s amazing to think that the Turks still use it.

Sadly, much of their farming is also stuck in the past.

Adana is in south-central Turkey, not far from a coast that touches the Mediterranean Sea and close to the border with war-torn Syria. This fertile region is known as Cukurova, and it reminded me of California’s Central Valley. The climate is similar and the people here grow a wide range of crops, including nuts, fruit, soy, corn, and cotton.

My role at the conference was to discuss the ways in which technology could help Turkish farmers grow more food. I talked about drip irrigation as well as the advanced machinery we use on our farm in Iowa, where we apply nutrients and crop-protection products in exact amounts to precise locations. GPS-derived yield maps help us understand the needs of our soil in three-meter grids.

I was concerned that my message went beyond what many of the Turkish farmers in attendance could imagine. They lack so much of what we take for granted in the United States, such as land-grant universities that conduct research and offer extension services. Their taxation system hobbles them as well: Confiscatory death taxes make it almost impossible for Turkish parents to pass on farms to their children. They can’t even count on the rule of law. Corruption is rampant.

All of this forces many farmers into small-scale operations—and keeps them at least a generation or two behind us, if not more. Their approach to fertilizer and crop protection shared with me involves conducting a few soil tests and then dumping these products on their fields haphazardly.

It’s a wasteful approach, and I can say this because I know it well: When I was younger, we did the same thing on our farm. But innovative technology access has enabled us to move on, in ways that make us more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

Maybe the situation of the Turks will improve over time. I certainly hope it does. I enjoyed my visit and appreciated the friendliness of the people.

Yet I’m not optimistic. The forces arrayed against them are massive. Progress is never inevitable. The civil war in neighboring Syria is a sharp reminder of this disturbing fact.

Turkey taught me that I should be grateful for the opportunity to farm in Iowa.

A few weeks later, however, I learned that we can’t rest easy.

In early December, I flew to China for meetings on the biodiesel business. This visit delivered a different takeaway point: As an American farmer, we can’t bask in the satisfaction that we’re doing better than Turkey and much of the rest of the world.

China certainly has its troubles, such as unrest in Hong Kong, persecutions of Uighurs in the western part of the country, the lack of basic freedoms and today the coronavirus.

But I saw China as a country on the rise: Cranes are everywhere, the roads are pristine, and the people are ambitious.

If your image of China involves impoverished people in a backwards country, you need to rethink it. China is a modern nation.

Many of the Turks may be trapped in the past, with their stone bridges and old-fashioned farming. They hope to catch up to us.

The Chinese have other ideas. They don’t merely hope to catch up, which they’re starting to do. Instead, they want to surge forward and pass us. For the good of the world and global consumers, and the sustainability of agriculture, we’ve all got to keep up our pace, on our farms and everywhere else