Same New Thing
Turning farming into agri-industry
June 11, 1987
The problems of—and with—industrial-style grain agriculture summarized. Re-reading this, I see that I managed to describe Mr. Williams' good book hardly at all.
Reviewed: Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin' Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America by Robert C. Williams. University of Illinois Press, 1987
The tractor, according to historian Robert C. Williams, saved farmers' backs but in the long run cost them their farms. That is the wary conclusion of Williams' new book, Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin ' Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America (University of Illinois Press). Williams charts a now familiar relationship between new farm technologies and farm economics. The small, general-purpose gasoline-powered tractor made it possible for one farmer to plant and cultivate, more acres than ever before. (Indeed, considering that the tractor increased the cash needs of the average farm, it made it absolutely necessary for him to do so.) The work couldn't be done as well but it could be done faster; the farmer hasn't gotten off that merry-go-round yet.
The tractor revolutionized farming in the same way that the refrigerator revolutionized the ice house. The demand for hired farm labor shrank, forcing now-redundant workers to migrate to the cities. Large farm families—remember, farm women until the 1920s or so were bred like mares and for the same reason—became uneconomical. The abandonment of the countryside by millions of people spelled the doom of rural society as local governments were left without any locals and small towns without any customers.
Farming survived, but many farms didn't. The size of the average farm increased and the numbers of farms naturally decreased. The way farms were run changed too. Before the tractor, farmers grew their own tractors (in the form of horses) and their own fuel (in the form of hay, oats, and pasture grass). The tractor sped the trend toward fewer crops and fewer animals on bigger fields, changes which occurred at the cost of economic and ecological diversity.
The tractor thus offers a nice paradigm for a relationship between production technologies and farm economics. It differs from the official one being espoused by the colleges of agriculture, the USDA, the major farm organizations, and agribusiness flacks in being based in history rather than wishful thinking. The benefits of the new farm technologies are surprisingly insubstantial. U.S. farming is efficient only in its use of labor; in its use of land and energy it is hideously wasteful. Food is cheap, but only because many public costs of current technologies are not covered by the farmer's input budget. The system has made it possible for Americans to get fatter cheaper than anyone on earth, true, but most of that food is less nutritious and flavorful compared to food grown in other ways. If cost—an industrial measure, mind—is the only criterion we eat well; by nearly every other standard we eat abominably.
The tractor was the epitome of the first (the mechanical) revolutions which have transformed farming in this century. Biotechnology promises perhaps even more fundamental changes. The genetic manipulation of staple crop varieties will certainly boost yields the way that hybridization and farm chemicals did before it. (Research is being focused on increasing yields as opposed to, say, improving nutritional value.) This rush to push up production of crops like corn which already are in surplus is insane. Much of the world is still hungry, but it is not for want of food but the money to buy food. U.S.-style agriculture has been adopted worldwide, with amazing, even miraculous results everywhere save Africa. Bangladesh is feeding itself, for example, and India—India!—is exporting grain.
New production technologies are not being pushed for the benefit of the hungry anyway, of course, but for the benefit of the proprietors of the technologies. As happened with the tractor, the new biotech discoveries will be a boon only for the farmers who adopt them quickest. A farmer who plants a pest-resistant corn variety which doubles his yield will have bushels per acre to sell to a world paying acre prices—for a while. Other farmers will gradually switch to that or similar varieties, and total output will rise. Soon everybody will have 200 bushels per acre to sell, but it will be at 200-bushel-per-acre prices. The relative advantage enjoyed by the early innovators will have disappeared.
It used to be that it took the dumbest Illinois farmer about thirty years to learn how to farm like the smartest. However, the time it takes for new technologies to be adopted by most growers, not just here but abroad, has shortened dramatically. When the University of Illinois ag staff estimated the income effects of the early adoption of hypothetical cost-reducing technologies, they used a time horizon of only ten years. Nor, interestingly, did they assume that the early adopters would be Illinoisans, or even Americans. The U.S. farmer used to be smarter than the rest of the world, period. Then he was smarter than his foreign competitors only for a while. Today he may not be smarter at all, since much of the promising research is being done overseas. The stakes are sizable. The difference in total Illinois farm income between being the first one in on a new technology and the last one in, the U of I figures, could be more than a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation) over ten years.
Perhaps more crucial is the fact that such technologies are adopted at different speeds by different Illinois farmers. The successful adaptation to a new technology requires information plus access to capital, the management expertise to put both to profitable use, and the financial stability to take the risk of trying. All these factors tend to favor the larger farm. The economically marginal farm may not survive the transition, because of rapid price shifts or extra debt load or whatever, After a certain point, the advantage enjoyed by the early adopters becomes a disadvantage suffered by the late ones. The result is vet another round of shakeouts, a further concentration of farm ownership, and a further attenuation of rural populations.
This cycle is probably inevitable. The fact that it is not widely desirable is confirmed by the government's willingness to spend billions in subsidies in a clumsy attempt to offset the effects of technological pressures on smaller producers. We have farm bills in the U.S., and farm organizations, and farm blocs, and farm crises, but we have no farm policy. The direction of technology (and thus the direction of the nation's agriculture) is left almost entirely to the corporations, which look to profit from it.
Options? We could revert to old-style, small-scale, diversified farming, but that is a romantic fantasy. We could cultivate new crops, but that is risky. We could simply buy out unneeded farms and dedicate the land to other public uses, but that is too sensible to be politic. It is partly out of despair of stemming the looming glut on the supply side therefore, that deeper thinkers in the Illinois ag establishment are looking to innovations on the demand side. If we grow too much corn for the world to eat, they say we need to make it possible for them to drink it or wear it or burn it instead. There are models; the demand for corn fructose sweeteners by the soft drink industry created demand for so much corn in central Illinois (this is where the plants are in both senses of the word) that local elevator prices have been significantly higher than elsewhere in the Corn Belt.
The specialists in what the boys at the UI call "post-harvest technology and market economics" envision a wonderful future in which corn will be used to make plastics, to de-sulferize coal, even to de-ice roads. Invention in such cases is the mother of necessity. Corn would substitute for oil in nearly all these uses, but it takes nearly as much oil to grow the corn as growing it would save. The need (the economic need at any rate) is not for oil substitutes, but for some way to keep the corporations which supply the nation's corn farmers in business.
As Williams concludes about the tractor, the problem is not technology but the concentration of economic power in corporations. Until policy comes to grips with that problem, we will learn again the lesson taught us by the tractor, which is that being clever usually happens at the expense of being smart. ●