Earlier today I had the privilege of speaking to the Richardson, Texas, Rotary Club. The invitation was open-ended so I was able to speak on pretty much anything I chose, related to agriculture, of course.
I picked the importance of the family farm. I thought you might be interested in my observations so I’m publishing it here as a longer-than-usual blog.
The family farm is alive and well.
It’s not 40-acres and a mule any longer and it’s not a matter of raising enough beans and greens to feed a family and sell what’s left to buy necessities. It’s not a yard full of chickens, a half-acre of vegetables and a milk cow.
The family farm, like most business ventures in the 21st Century, has evolved.
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In Texas, a family farm may be a 30-acre plot growing vegetables for local markets or a 20,000- acre diversified enterprise with cotton, corn, wheat and grain sorghum—and 200 head of cattle. It can be a ranch that’s bigger than some counties. And most are incorporated, as are most small businesses, for asset protection, tax advantages and other reasons.
But it’s still family.
Most of the farmers I know are actively engaged. I don’t see many who farm from the seat of a fancy pickup and send the hired hands to do all the work. They plow, they plant and they harvest. They are as hands-on as any business I know. They take few vacations and never at planting or harvest time.
I’ll give you an example.
Farm Press sponsors a peanut award every year and takes our winner to a resort in Panama City, Florida, for four days of fun and some education. This year’s winner was from South Texas and the meeting occurred in the middle of corn harvest.
“Can’t go,” he said. “I’ll be cutting corn.”
That’s not unusual. I have never met a group of businessmen—and that’s what they are, agricultural businessmen—more devoted to taking care of business.
And the farm almost always passes from one generation to another. Sometimes it’s sub-divided among sons—and some daughters—and sometimes I see three generations working together on a farm. It’s usually a seamless transition, though problems do crop up occasionally.
That happens in families.
Farmers work hard, harder than most any occupation I’ve ever heard of. They work long hours. I know many who start planting corn in early March—February down in the Rio Grande Valley—and spend more time on the seat of the tractor than they do in their homes—until the crop is in. Same goes at harvest time. Timing is of the essence and delay can be devastating.
They are up at all hours of the night checking irrigation systems, pregnant cows and wild hogs in the peanut fields.
They despair over drought that saps their energy as it destroys their crops. They pray for rain but fear the hailstorms that often bring it. Wind-blown sand can destroy in minutes plants that took weeks to coax out of the ground and up to a point where making a crop seemed possible.
So they start over. They replant, sometimes to a crop of lesser value but one that will still make in the abbreviated time left in the season. Sometimes they replant again, hoping for better weather.
They are vexed by the vagaries of the marketplace where they have little leverage and few options. The larger operations, with adequate capital, use the futures markets, forward contracts, and options. Some build granaries of their own to hold their crops until prices improve. It’s always a gamble, the dice are loaded and Murphy is in charge.
Today’s farmer is no hayseed bumpkin fresh off the turnip truck. Most are well educated; many have college educations and all have earned advanced degrees from that school of hard knocks.
They understand soil and what it needs to turn a seed into an ear of corn or a boll of cotton.
They know animals—how to feed them, breed them and how to doctor them when they fall ill.
They know mechanics. Most can tear down an engine that rivals an airplane motor and are artists with a blow torch or welding rod. They adjust equipment to their farms and their style of farming.
They know chemistry. They understand that applying the wrong material to the wrong plant or at the wrong time not only wastes time and money but can also destroy the crop or fail to control the bug or the weed or the fungus that always waits to show itself until the farmer makes a mistake, and then it destroys the crop.
They know electronics. They have learned over the past decade how to retrieve data from satellites and plug it into their computers, then relay it to units on their tractors, sprayers and combines to guide equipment down the same narrow row every time without overlapping where they traveled the last time across the field. They know how well a field is producing as they pluck the bolls from the cotton plants, the ears from the corn stalks. On-board monitors display yields on the go.
They know high finance. Those tractors, those electronic marvels, set them back as much as a quarter of a million dollars. That’s for one. A good sized-farm needs several. I saw a combine last week at a new product roll out. Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail is about $600,000. Cotton pickers range from a low of about 200 grand to almost a million.
A bag of cottonseed, enough to plant about an acre, maybe a little more, runs about $350. Corn seed is about as high. And that’s for one acre. Multiply that by 1,000, not a big farm in the Southwest, and then tack on the diesel fuel required to plow, plant, spray and harvest and the math begins to boggle the mind.
Speaking of math—consider the numbers 9 billion and 40 years.
Nine billion is the estimated population of planet earth in 40 years. Nine billion people who will need to eat and wear clothes—preferably made out of natural fibers. To feed and clothe that many people, farmers will have to increase productivity. They will have to grow twice as much as they do today and they will have to do it on fewer acres because 9 billion people will need places to live, Walmarts to shop in, race tracks and baseball fields to entertain them, and a green spot of grass occasionally to remind their bare feet in late spring what nature used to feel like.
So, who will feed and clothe all those people?
The American farmer. Who else can? Who else will?
China likely will not be interested in providing for more than its own needs. Russia? I don’t think so unless we see a monumental mind shift. Australia and Canada will help some, maybe Brazil and Argentina will chip in. But there is no other nation on earth with both the ability and the willingness to feed the world.
But here’s the scary part.
Aging farmer population
The average age of America’s farmer today is about as old as me. That’s more than 60 in case you’re wondering. I don’t think many of them will still be farming in 40 years. And over the past few decades fewer young people have been willing—or in some cases financially able—to come back to the farm. As I mentioned, farming is an expensive proposition and starting from scratch is just about impossible.
So what’s the answer?
For one thing, we need to encourage survival of the family farm, make it easier and more attractive for sons and daughters to come home. I’m not certain how that happens—low interest ag loans, maybe. Tax advantages. I’m no financial whiz—I don’t even balance my own check book since my wife discovered my lack or arithmetic ability. But farming needs to be a more sexy occupation.
We need more funding for agricultural research—some basic research. A lot of the tests, crop development and production testing going on now is funded in partnership with corporations. There is nothing wrong with that but we still need agricultural scientists, working independently, with no ties to corporate giants, looking for better ways to grow, manage and harvest crops.
Technology is key
We need more technology. I thought the backlash against genetically modified plants was abating until a few emails I recently received after writing a piece on GMOs. Two or three years ago I had the privilege of talking briefly with the late Dr. Norman Borlaug. If you are not familiar with Dr. Borlaug, he is known as the father of the Green Revolution—advancement in plant breeding, especially wheat, that made it possible for farmers in arid regions to grow grain for hungry people. He is credited with saving 1 billion—that’s billion with a B—people with his technology.
When I met him, he told me that genetic engineering would be necessary for the next green revolution.
Organic agriculture will not do the trick. I have nothing against organic fruits and vegetables, corn, cotton, whatever. I think farmers who produce crops without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetic modifications are to be commended for meeting a demand. But organic- only will not feed 9 billion people.
For one thing, yields are typically lower. So it will take even more land to produce the same amount of food and fiber that farmers who use GMO seed, fertilizers and approved pesticides at approved and tested rates can make. And we know that 9 billion people will take up some of the land we farm today.
For another, organic requires more hand labor. Without crop protection chemicals someone has to either pick off pesky insects by hand or accept a certain amount of damage and loss. And someone has to chop weeds which, left unchecked, compete for water, sunlight and nutrients from the soil—a big reason why organic yields are lower.
If any of you have ever used a hoe to remove bermudagrass from a watermelon patch you understand the dilemma facing natural weed control. Not many want to earn minimum wage grubbing weeds out of a corn field.
So, feeding 9 billion people has no simple solutions. No single piece of technology, no one new chemical, no one super-productive variety will sustain the planet. It will take a combination of a lot of different technologies to make certain that we have enough food and fiber to meet the needs of 9 billion people.
And I am convinced that the best platform for adapting whatever new system is developed will continue to be the family farm.
In 40 years, the family farm may be bigger, and there likely will be fewer of them. Currently, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population farms. Less than 1 percent actually makes a living from farming and fewer than that account for the bulk of the meat, grains, fruits, vegetables and the fiber we all need.
But family farms have advantages that large, multinational, corporations can’t match. They are devoted to what they do; they are dedicated to providing the safest, most abundant, and the most affordable food supply in the world.
And they are driven by a force that few outside their world can understand—a force that makes them strive to pass along their piece of land to the next generation—and pass it down in better shape than they found it.
They are earth’s best stewards, the strongest conservationists, the people who sustain us. They are family farmers.