There is a common image of the farmer tilling the land as his ancestors did in an unchanging landscape – and then there is the reality of modern agriculture. For today’s farmers, change is a constant, and success depends not just on adapting to change but on the ability to anticipate change and create it.
Consider, for example, the revolution in U.S. corn production.
Today’s corn grower typically grew up in the 1950s and 1960s as corn production was being revolutionized by new technologies from hybrid seed, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers to tractors and the first self-propelled combines.
In 1957, U.S. corn growers set a new yield record – 48.3 bushels per acre – producing a crop of just over three billion bushels. None of the crop went into fuel ethanol or high fructose corn syrup, and only 200 million bushels were exported.
Since then, the list of new technologies alone is staggering: biotechnology, no-till and low-till, global positioning satellites and precision ag, variable rate application, and equipment that will plant 36 rows of corn in one pass.
Corn growers haven’t just accepted these technologies as circumstance forced them.
Instead, they have often been creative innovators, tinkering in the machine shed to improve a piece of equipment and pressing farm input suppliers for new solutions to farm challenges. These corn farmers, beginning with the so-called “early adopters,” drive the process of spreading new methods and solutions as word spreads from neighbor to neighbor.
The result: U.S. corn farmers produced more than 147 bushels per acre in 2011, for a total crop of 12.4 billion bushels. By 2020, it is estimated that U.S. farmers will grow more than 17 billion bushels of corn.
It’s not just in the field that the world of farming has changed. Policy changes follow year after year – not just farm bills but rail and shipping deregulation, trade wars and barriers, new environmental laws and conservation programs.
Agriculture has weathered grain embargos, the Asian fiscal crisis, the 1980s farm depression, and more.
As with corn production, corn growers have increasingly stepped beyond the farm itself to influence these other changes that affect their ability to operate. One of the most important steps came in 1957, when farmers saw the need for a stronger voice on corn issues in Washington and decided to establish the National Corn Growers Association.
It has been farmers, in each generation since then, who have spoken for their neighbors and their industry on a roster of issues that began with agricultural policy and now includes infrastructure, energy, biotechnology, conservation, research, and education about production agriculture.
Their stories are a study in grower initiative, leadership, and change. In the weeks to come, NCGA will share some of the corn industry’s success in the words of the farmers who experienced this innovation and change first hand.