- Historic Sites
The American Farm
Still Family, Still the Wonder of the World
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
But without increased productivity, farm expansion would have been disastrous. In this case, productivity can be taken literally: the farmer farmed more acres, but he also found ways to get more production from every acre he farmed. Herbicides largely replaced mechanical cultivation, and that kept down labor costs, but because herbicides reduced weed competition, they also increased yield. The same was true of pesticides. In neither case was the farmer simple-mindedly enamored of chemicals, a tool of the diabolical oil interests. He was trying to get the job done and still make a living. Fertilizer increased productivity more directly by increasing yield, and between 1950 and 1972, fertilizer use in the United States expanded by 276 per cent.
Increased agricultural productivity has taken many forms, not all of them petrochemical. Hybridization has been among the most important. As far back as the 1930's, American agricultural scientists were aware that crossbreeding two distantly related strains of animal or plant resulted in a phenomenon they called heterosis and farmers called hybrid vigor. Distant crosses suppressed undesirable genetic récessives; hybrids were stronger than their parents, grew faster, were more resistant to disease. Hybridization alone can add 10 to 15 per cent to the growth rate of cattle. Properly fertilized and cultivated, hybrid corn can yield one hundred bushels or more to the acre compared to its parents’ thirty-five or fifty. Hybrid corn and hybrid soybeans now dominate the corn belt, and after years of difficult research, hybrid wheat today begins to come on line. The cattle industry, traditionally the most conservative sector of agriculture, resisted hybridization until the late 1960's. Then a few entrepreneurs began importing the semen of “exotic” European breeds of cattle—animals themselves were barred because of the relentless U.S. quarantine of animals from countries that harbored hoof-and-mouth disease—and breeding up purebred exotics for crossing with Heref ords and Aberdeen Angus, the most populous American breeds. The Charolais came from France, the Chianina from Italy, the Simmental from Switzerland. All the exotics were large dual-purpose breeds the Europeans had developed for milk and work as well as for beef, and they added growth and feed-conversion efficiency and sheer size-longer rib-eyes, as the exotic breeders like to say—to domestic breeds short on milk and stunted by years of breeding small. A purebred Hereford calf may weigh sixty pounds at birth; a Hereford-Simmental calf is likely to weigh ninety or ninety-five. Other factors being equal, the Hereford calf won’t ever catch up. Eventually hybrid crosses will dominate the cattle industry as they already dominate the grain, poultry, and swine industries.
All these changes have altered the look of farming, though the difference may not be obvious from the road. Diversified farming, the kind of farming we practiced at Drumm, is a thing of the past. A wheat farmer in eastern Kansas grows two crops, wheat and soybeans, planting the soybeans after he harvests his wheat in June. He buys his meat and milk and eggs and vegetables at the supermarket, as you and I do, and probably lives in an airconditioned house (tractors and combines also come with air conditioning, as well as with heaters, eight-track stereos, and two-way or CB radios). In western Kansas, where the rainfall is sparse enough to require fallowing the wheat fields in alternate years to allow the underground water to build up, he may have converted from wheat farming to growing irrigated soybeans by drilling a well and investing in a center-pivot irrigation system. You can see such fields while flying west to California, great circles of green on the brown buffalo plains, and won’t see them again this side of the Middle East, the only other place where they have so far been installed.
An Iowa farmer may plant corn and soybeans, but he almost certainly runs no cattle or hogs. Farming today is specialized. Its technology requires it; the farmer’s heavy investment in machinery requires it; maximum productivity requires it; fixed costs and narrow profits require it. Where corn grows best, corn is grown; where wheat grows best (or rather, where nothing else survives without irrigation), wheat is grown. There are a few counties in Iowa devoted almost exclusively to popcorn, which is why, in grain country, with no animals to confine, so many of the fences are down.
The raising of animals has changed even more dramatically than the cultivation of grains. Here the change is evident and radical: more slowly in some industries, more rapidly in others, all the animals are being moved indoors for all or part of their life cycles. The production of broilers, which is to say the production of young chickens destined for the frying pan, has become a factory operation. With automated air-exchange systems, automated water supplies, automated food supplies, and automated waste disposal, one man now raises seventy-five thousand birds from delivery at one day of age to slaughter at eight weeks. I raised broilers indoors at Drumm for a 4-H project; even with antibiotic feed it took me nine weeks to get them to weight in 1954. A poultry “farmer” no longer needs a farm. He needs a building, a feed mixer or a loading dock, a sewage aeration system and adjacent lagoon, and crucially, a back-up power supply. If his operation is large enough, he also needs a slaughterhouse.