There’s nothing like February weather to lead one’s mind to spring sunshine and a greening landscape, with the calendar telling us we are a month away from the “official” start of spring. I know farmers anxiously await this time, which causes me to reflect on the evolution of the family farm. If you listen to rumors, corporate farming has systematically displaced the quaint family farms that conjure mental images of a simple life, with pies cooling on window sills, children on tire swings and well-used, dusty tractors pulling plows.
But reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there are more than 500 million family farms around the world, representing up to 80 percent of all farms in many countries. You might think that’s not true in the U.S., but according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2013, families owned and operated more than 86 percent of the nation’s farms, accounting for nearly half of U.S. farm production, particularly in row crops and pork.
As someone with deep family roots in farming, I can tell you that the quaint picture of family farms has changed as well. Yet, the core principles haven’t changed in centuries. Family farmers plant and harvest based on intimate knowledge of their land, weather patterns, and weed and insect issues. But today, the number of hands who assist with the farming tasks is smaller than ever – less than one percent of our population in the U.S. At the same time, technology and improved farm practices have allowed those family farms to be highly productive. Economies of scale can be realized even on smaller farms, contributing to overall gains in production. According to the USDA, 50 years ago, corn yield was about 63 bushels (bu) per acre; 25 years later, it was 116 bu/acre; and in 2013, it was nearly 160 bu/acre. Soybeans saw a similar yield increase, from 23 bu/acre a half-century ago, to 32 bu/acre in 1989 and more than 43 bu/acre in 2013.
There are many reasons for this productivity increase, but a critical piece of the puzzle is the partnership between farmers and the industry that supplies them. New chemical solutions control insects, weeds, and diseases, while new seed varieties and traits improve plant health and resiliency. These technological advances, developed through an ongoing dialogue between growers and agricultural sciences companies, give family farmers the freedom to use their own knowledge and skills to make the most out of each acre of land.
At the same time, these technologies have enabled the deep passion of family farmers to protect and sustain their land for tomorrow’s generation of growers. Many no longer plow the land, engaging in low- or no-till agricultural practices that protect precious soil from erosion while reducing fossil fuel use, thanks to herbicide-resistant plants that allow farmers to control weeds without plowing them under. Newer active ingredients and formulations of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides reduce the amount of chemicals per acre needed to fight pests. Nitrogen stabilizers improve plants’ nitrogen uptake while reducing nitrate leaching into groundwater and decreasing nitrous oxide released into the air. And these are just a few examples in the farmer’s toolbox.
Today’s family farmer is an entrepreneur with access to knowledge and technology undreamt of by my grandparents. Satellites used for precision farming, high-tech combines with cabs that look like airplane cockpits and mobile apps that help growers make key decisions – these are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the family farmer’s ability to contribute to the world’s economy. As these tools and techniques become more widely available, they’ll be used by a larger proportion of family farms around the globe, where the demand for high-quality produce and protein is growing rapidly.
So, despite the rumors, you can rest assured that the family farm remains a vital part of the agriculture industry, providing a local touch to the global need to feed the growing and hungry world. At Dow AgroSciences, farmers are our heroes, and we’re honored to help celebrate the “Year of the Farmer” at the 2015 Indiana State Fair, and we wish farmers the very best as they anticipate the new growing season.