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.