This is related to the previous post in that the changes in farming have created the changes in small towns. Things that used to take hard labor, dust and sweat, perseverance and grit, now take mostly education, good decisions, and computers. So what does that mean? That big corporations are much better suited to managing the huge cash flows now required to farm. Young people, unless they are endowed with an inheritance, are simply priced out of the market, starting with the land prices and continuing with the prices to buy or lease modern machinery. So the farms keep getting bigger and more specialized.
I can’t cry too much for progress, but what has accelerated this trend in the last few years has been the tremendous increase in prices for corn, due to many factors but mostly due to huge increases in ethanol production using corn here in the U.S. From Jim’s perspective, this has also led to people farming for money instead the love of farming. What’s the difference? Decisions made on short term profits instead of long term care of the land.
He showed me many examples of where waterways, areas where water collects and runs fast during rainstorms, are either not properly left with cover crop like grasses or are not tended to correctly. The image on the left is a waterway with no cover or tending and it shows the erosion that happened from a recent storm. The image on the right has well maintained waterways. These problems are usually created by someone trying to get as many bushels of corn or beans out of their acreage as possible this year. What it creates in addition to more profits is more erosion of topsoil. As the topsoil drains away, less productive soils are now in play, requiring more fertilizer to maintain yields. Not only does that decrease long-term profitability and health of the land, buy you also don’t have to look too far to find out that fertilizer run-off is causing problems in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
He also shared examples of other cash producing but arguably questionable practices like high intensity indoor pig farming. I share his concern that we have stepped over a line somewhere and are simply disregarding the welfare of the animals that are providing us food, all in the name of more profits. We all vote with our pocketbooks and somehow I can’t help but think we’ve shortchanged an animal’s welfare to save money on groceries, allowing us to buy the next biggest size TV.
The last change he is seeing is simply in trust and cooperation. No longer are deals done with handshakes. More frequently farmers are not seeking their neighbors’ inputs on decisions like where to put a hog barn, which anyone can tell you will ruin your day if you’re downwind. Some of this is progress, some of this is selfishness. And maybe both Jim and I are romantics about the “good ole days” of farming in the 50s and 60s. At least he had the opportunity to raise a family during them.
OK, enough preaching. I keep thinking that my posts will get lighter, but Jim and I were resonating on way too many things and I had to write them down somewhere!