All farmers enjoy harvest time. Some of my fondest memories on the dairy farm were chopping alfalfa haylage through the summer, corn silage harvest in the early fall and the earlage harvest after that.Best of all, we had a place to apply manure. We took annual soil samples so we knew where to apply manure, although we already knew that generally the fields furthest from the barn yielded less because applying manure there was, well, more time-consuming.
I recently flew the Mooney over to Willmar, Minnesota, from Washington, D.C. I noticed some beautiful contour farming in Illinois and Iowa, on into Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The amazing productivity of these farm fields is based upon conservation of soils, which means mitigating water and wind erosion by tilling fields perpendicular to slope. My home agency, the NRCS, has championed conservation and the heart of our effort is mitigating erosion.
Conservation tillage, along with conservation buffers, serve the valuable role of stabilizing soils. While the NRCS cost-share programs are voluntary, nearly every farmer knows the value of conservation practices. Further, they know the value of implementing these practices so future generations have productive soils.
As I flew over the farmland two miles above ground level, I thought about several articles written lately that claim the world’s population has reached 7 billion people.
As I have written in these columns a number of times, the three-way juxtaposition of human population, climate change and input costs of energy, fertilizer and land will challenge every one of us in farming or helping those who do farm. And this statement is valid in all the world.
From my view, there are two additional concerns with our global food and feed production systems. One is land use. While many demographers tell us that humans are moving into cities, the causal factors include lack of economic opportunity in rural landscapes. Degradation of once-productive farm or rangeland dislocates people so that they move where there are services, food and opportunity.
The fastest-growing region of urbanization is Africa. Changes in climate include desertification, lack of water for irrigation and salinization, taking away crop yield potential. The urbanization trend includes young people, those that may have been born in a farming community; they soon realize the prospects for a good quality of life are minimal. Urbanization also draws brainpower away from the rural settings.
The challenge of farm modernization requires education and dedication and these are manifest if there are economic opportunities on farmlands. These are huge social considerations that all feed into the depopulation of farming regions, especially if farming is culturally seen as what one does when there is no other opportunity.
The second concern is biological. Plant scientists are concerned with wide-scale outbreaks of plant disease … the kind that significantly reduce not only crop yield but harvest quality. A disease that manifests itself across the globe, especially with our cereal grains, would change our human behavior significantly.
We would see the livestock industry downsized – especially the monogastrics, given their diet, which is similar to ours. We could see reduced biofuel production, if corn grains were in short supply.
The attention such a disease could cause, once manifest across the globe, would be the top news item for everyone. We would race to do everything we could to mitigate the disease while at the same time adjusting our food and feed balance.
I often wonder if such a calamity would be the turning point in how we globally invest in the entire agricultural industry. For instance, the land use issue is hugely important. What case can we make for doing everything we can to identify productive soils in rain-fed climates and protect them from non-farm use?
What case can we make for conservation of all landscapes, to stabilize soil from the effects of erosion, to stabilize soil nutrients from leaching and overland loss into surface waters and to maintain and even enhance the sequestration of carbon in soils?
What case can we make for the investment in all parts of the world in something like our own module – the valuable land grant university system with its research and extension programs, or the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service scientists and engineers who think about what are the coming challenges and then try to mitigate them?
What case can we make to our young people that the future of agriculture is already here … we have 7 billion people to feed and clothe, with more of them in cities than anywhere else?
We are, as agriculturalists, very much aware of all these challenges. The great majority of the public is not aware, for these challenges are manifest somewhere else. Africa, the Indus and Mesopotamia Plains, China, and the highlands of Brazil and Argentina.
Certainly, as I fly my aircraft over the Upper Midwest, I see below productive soils in the rain-fed climate. The speck that is a combine in a cornfield is comforting to every one of us. The summer went well, and the crop yields were fine.
One claim that we ought to make at every opportunity is a society must invest in agriculture … not just the physical infrastructure but the human environment as well. For all of us having grown up on farms with 4-H and FFA backgrounds, this claim is already known.
What we must do is tell this story to our policy-makers so we are prepared for the coming decades of major changes, including population demographics, climate change and input costs.
In my travels around the world, especially in places where economic development is nearly non-existent, agriculturalists are demanding their leaders pay attention to their local and regional agricultural industries – that investing in this industry will move a society towards stability and economic prosperity.
Here at home, let us not take our own agricultural industry for granted. Continued investment in it will be necessary if we are to maintain and even improve our performance on the farm.
The bottom line might be that the great harvest of another crop year is now in the silos and recorded in the books. However, it is not by accident that every year, in the autumn, we harvest the seeds of lands rich with fertile soils and waters. Indeed, we should embrace this harvest and vow never to take one like it for granted. PD
USDA FAS Senior Agricultural Adviser