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Focus on Agriculture

January 2, 2012

Agriculture’s Stellar Performance

By Stewart Truelsen

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” seems to be the campaign theme for both major parties in 2012, and while unemployment is a terrible hardship, we can be thankful that the campaign is not about “food, food, food.”

In an election year there is sure to be a focus on all the things that are wrong with the economy and the country at large. Both political parties would like to make things better. Unemployment, housing, energy, education and a crumbling infrastructure are all going to be touched on in campaigns.

What’s missing from the list is food and agriculture and that’s because America does not have a food crisis. The basic goal of producing an ample supply of food at reasonable prices has been met and exceeded.

The reasons for American agriculture’s stellar performance are apparent in a report issued by the Economic Research Service (ERS), the agency of the Department of Agriculture responsible for economic analysis.

The 77-page report basically boiled down to the fact that American farmers and ranchers are still able to produce more with less; that is more food with fewer labor hours and less land than was used 30 years ago. As a result, U.S. farm productivity has increased nearly 50 percent.

There are a number of factors cited in the report that enabled American agriculture to achieve these results. They include innovations in the way farms are organized, managed and handle risk, as well as changes in production practices.

Genetically engineered seeds and no-till farming were credited with reducing machinery, fuel and pesticide use. Advancements in drip and pressure irrigation systems conserved water. In fact, agriculture relies more on science and technology for growth than other industries.

The ERS report also noted that farm production has shifted to larger units over the past quarter century. These larger crop and livestock operations can take advantage of scale economies and are better positioned to negotiate contracts. Yet, 97 percent of all farms remain family operations, some of them going back four or five generations.

The amount of land used in agriculture dropped during the period measured by the report (1982 to 2007), declining from 54 percent to 51 percent of total U.S. land area. Farming also used 30 percent less hired labor and 40 percent less operator labor.

In the past, the work ethic of farmers has often been cited as a contributing factor in productivity gains. There’s really no difference today. Farmers and ranchers are still incredibly hard workers, but thanks to better education, training and technology they also work smarter.

Throughout the history of American agriculture there has never been a time when the people who work the land to produce our food, fiber and fuel have said, “That’s good enough.” Instead, they have always tried to do better.


Stewart Truelsen is a regular contibutor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is the author of a book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th anniversary.