Will all our advances in farming be enough?

November 23, 2018

The November sky is painted in hues of pink, red and orange as the weather turned colder and snowflakes flutter down.

Farmers have traditionally made Thanksgiving their goal to finish harvest and field work. Only a few isolated pockets of soybean fields remain to be harvested. Unharvested corn fields are more common and given recent heavy rains may not be completed until the ground freezes.

Nitrogen inhibitors encourage fall anhydrous applications before soil reaches the desired temperature. Fall applications of nitrogen in the karst region of southeastern Minnesota and in other soil-sensitive areas are discouraged. Ammonia tanks come and go often from the nearby fertilizer plant while combines continue their work. Soybean ground as been worked up and many cornstalks moldboard plowed under.

Dad, who depended on manure to fertilize fields, greeted the first commercial fertilizer salesman’s pitch with healthy disbelief. The salesman pushed taller corn, bigger ears and higher yields. That was a big chunk to swallow for someone who started planting corn with horse teams, checked corn in and husked corn by hand.

The acreage was small, but husking corn was a monumental chore. Flinging ears against a wagon’s bang board from sunrise to sunset left wrists and arms dog-tired. Wives, children and those who could afford hired help worked through rain and snow. The remains of each day were spent milking cows and tending to other livestock. Corn binders harvested stalks in bundles with ears later plucked and fed to hogs and fodder used for bedding.

Hard labor is credited with instilling strong work ethics that children carried into adulthood to excel in professional careers.

Dad, when he was reflective and in a “you thought you had it tough’’ mood, said that his offspring had nothing to complain about. A two-row mounted picker, an elevator and mixer-mills made everything so much easier.

Electric cooperatives brought power lines to rural Minnesota and despite its monthly cost was well worth the advance. Hybrid corn allowed yields to reach never-before-seen heights. Farmers’ willingness to adopt new technologies was remarkable and due in no small part to the desire to make more money.

Other choices weren’t so clear-cut. Field tiling met serious resistance despite the obvious advantages it provided. What were swamps and bogs could produce crops in fields that dried faster. Early tile lines were shallow and dug by hand. Cement tile was hard to handle and out of necessity lines were spaced far apart.

Some who were against tiling argued that digging up the ground reduced yields and soil fertility. The Extension Service held educational meetings to help convince many landowners otherwise.

Dad was not among the first adopters of tiling, hybrids and commercial fertilizer. However, his willingness to change — like so many others who eventually did the same — required internal fortitude.

It is remarkable that food producers, particularly in developing nations, are so resistant to change. The reasons are many. The American model of food production as championed by Norman Borlaug, the creator of the Green Revolution, doesn’t fit the needs of those farmers.

Many continue to work small acreages with oxen and hoes and produce just enough to feed their families with a small amount to barter. Food security in many impoverished nations is worsening as more farmland is lost to deserts, climate change and urbanization.

Many experts say social upheaval and the threat of war will only increase in the decades ahead as an ever-growing world population demands food sustainability by any available means.

It’s been U.S. farmers’ mission to feed the world. Exported U.S. corn, soybeans, livestock and poultry remain committed to achieving it, but questions remain. Can yields continue to grow or have they been maxed out? Will the thin layer of topsoil be kept in place or will erosion seriously erode its productive potential? Will the miracle chemicals that control weeds lose their effectiveness from overuse?

Time will reveal the answers. We’ve come far from hand-husking corn and resistance to tiling. Back-breaking labor has been replaced by machines. Will all of it be enough to sustain tomorrow’s population?

Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in rural West Concord with his wife Kathy.

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