Industrial Agriculture

 

By Mike Barnett

Administrator’s note: This blog post originally ran in Texas Agriculture Talks on Aug. 24, 2009 and was named Best Editorial in recent American Farm Bureau Federation Awards competition (large state Farm Bureaus). Enjoy.

Industrial” and “sustainable” are words thrown around freely when discussing agriculture in the ongoing food debate.

Here’s what those words mean to me.

A year or two before I was born, my dad was scratching a living farming a quarter section of rented land in Oklahoma. He and mom had served in the military and after World War II, they decided to go back to agriculture. He, mom and eventually, my older sister and brother lived in a small farmhouse with an outhouse out back. Dad worked dawn to dusk, seven days a week, while mom tried to make ends meet by teaching at a country school. Dad’s primary crop was wheat and he fought drought and hail, greenbugs, soil erosion and everything else Mother Nature threw at him. Sometimes he made a good harvest; other times, not much. They ate what we today call free-range chicken almost every evening for supper. The chickens had the run of the farm by day and were cooped up at night. I remember well mom talking about those “scrawny little” chickens. They never got very big…one, because they were subject to the fangs of stray dogs and the whims of other predators; and two, they didn’t have time to get old. Times were hard, my family had to eat, and those chickens were their main source of protein.

Some food idealists might call this the perfect life. They might say it was simple, pastoral and the family enjoyed an abundance of fresh food, air and sunshine. They might say the quality of the crops was better because they were grown on a small farm without high-tech methods. They might suggest that all food be grown like this.

Dad, if he were still alive, would disagree. What he saw was endless hard work. He contributed buckets of sweat and more than a few tears, with little economic benefit for his family. He loved farming, but decided to move on.

The first rule of sustainability, my blogging partner Gene Hall is fond of saying, is economic survival. If a farmer or rancher can not make a living in agriculture, they will be forced to another vocation. My dad could not survive on the farm. He found opportunity in the growing industrial complex on the Gulf Coast of Texas and provided a good living for his family. That story was repeated thousands of times in thousands of locations across this nation. The move from the farm to the cities and suburbs that started as a trickle in the 1940s became a flood in the ’50s to where today only 2 percent of the population in this country produces the food and fiber many of us take for granted.

Those who stayed on the land had the resources or sticking power or just plain determination to make farming work. Farms became bigger. There were tremendous innovations in agricultural machinery and farming methods. Genetic technology resulted in increased yields. Techniques were developed to achieve economies of scale. In what critics term industrial farming, a new generation of American family farmers provided abundant food for an economically booming nation and much of the rest of the world.

Many food purists/activists say this is bad. Many of them propose going back to the old ways of farming. My dad would say hogwash. (Actually, he would say something more of a bovine nature, but hogwash will suffice.)

Dad would have the vision to clearly see both sides of this issue. He would embrace and applaud the opportunities provided to farmers and ranchers with the local food movement and organic agriculture. He would realize the need for large-scale agricultural production to feed a hungry world.

He would recognize that farming is more complex than it used to be. He would marvel at the new efficiency of agriculture. He would appreciate the continuing evolution and adoption of new techniques to protect precious soil and water resources.

My mother? I don’t think she missed the farm. She continued teaching, this time in a city school. She was a big fan of indoor plumbing. And she relished those store-bought, fat chickens whose necks she didn’t have to wring. I think mom would have loved industrial, sustainable agriculture.

 

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Mike Barnett

Director of Publications
Texas Farm Bureau
I’m a firm believer that farmers and ranchers will continue to meet the needs of a growing world population by employing equal measures of common sense, conservation and technology.
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One Response to “Mom would have loved industrial agriculture: Redux”

  1. Robert Fleming says:

    Mike,

    Great article, really enjoyed it. I am often saying the same thing about my grandparents being able to see technology today, boy it would have made their life easier!

    Robert Fleming

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