This month, the celebration of spring is being hailed by many as they visit their local garden stores to buy seed, weed killer, kick the tires of lawnmowers and to have visions of gardens that only appear on special programming on PBS. We have all been suffering from cabin fever and cable TV flu, so now it is time to head outside and plant some seeds.
Tennessee’s farming community has also been waiting on spring as well, but they take a different look at getting things started on the farm compared to our plotting out the backyard garden. They have to take a look at markets and plan for just how much to plant, with the result of making a living. The only marketing concern a Tennessee farmer had in the early years, when selling his crop or livestock, was the price he would receive down at the local sale barn or grain elevator. He didn’t concern himself with what is being exported overseas, the need for soybeans in Asia, or even what is being bought on the west and east coasts. His primary concern was what is being paid for his product in his own hometown.
Today that has all changed. With the world population at 7,072,384,600 as of March 15, and expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, the Tennessee farmer has to focus on the global challenges, as well as the local agricultural concerns. With exports from our state of raw agricultural products totaling $924 million, international trade and continued changes in farming technology worldwide, trade issues have major impacts on Tennessee farms. A world event thousands of miles away from a Tennessee farm can change a farmer’s commodity prices immediately.
With the global nature of agriculture today, along with the smaller number of growers and livestock producers, it is necessary for rural America and Tennessee to take a more active role in trade issues, while also improving the amount and quality of the food and fiber the farmer produces. And now, fuel has also been added to the list of farm products produced.
Technology is allowing farms to get larger. Fewer farmers are producing more, and the trend has no visible end. Less than two percent of our population today produces the food we eat. More than three million people farm or ranch in the United States. More than 79,000 farms are located in Tennessee alone, with 41 percent of the state’s total land area used for farmland. Individuals, family partnerships or family corporations operate almost 99 percent of U.S. farms. Over 22 million people are employed in farm or farm-related jobs, including production agriculture, farm inputs, processing and marketing, and wholesale and retail sales.
The way farmers grow their livestock has even changed to support the modern day world. Meat is now produced with lower fat and cholesterol. This has resulted in retail cuts that are 15 percent leaner, giving consumers better value for their dollar. For example, a pork tenderloin now has only one more gram of fat than a skinless chicken breast, one of the true fat “lightweights.”
Farm equipment has evolved dramatically from the team of horses used in the early 1900s. A new technique called “precision farming” boosts crop yields and reduces waste by using satellites and computers to match seed, fertilizer and crop protector applications to local soil conditions. Today’s four-wheel drive tractors have the power of 40 to 300 horses. This makes for a large capital investment, as farmers pay anywhere from $97,000 for an average 160 horsepower tractor to $170,000 for a four-wheel drive model.
As the amount of mechanization and horsepower in farm machinery has continued to increase, the time needed to complete tasks has decreased. Combines, huge machines used to harvest grains such as corn, soybeans and wheat, have dramatically changed farming. In the 1930s and 40s, before the machines were available, a farmer could harvest an average of 100 bushels of corn by hand in a nine-hour day. Today’s combines can harvest 900 bushels of corn per hour or 100 bushels of corn in less than seven minutes! With modern methods, one acre of land in the U.S. (about the size of a football field) can produce: 42,000 pounds of strawberries, 11,000 heads of lettuce, 25,400 pounds of potatoes, 8,900 pounds of sweet corn, or 640 pounds of cotton lint.
The efficiency of U.S. farmers benefits the Tennessee consumer in the pocketbook. Americans spend less on food than any other developed nation in the world. On average in 2004, Americans spent only two percent of their disposable income on meat and poultry, compared to 4.1 percent in 1970.
The other day, I saw a bumper sticker that sums up the importance of a Tennessee farmer very well. It said, “If you don’t eat, don’t worry about farmers going out of business.”
March 19 is the day chosen this month for National Agriculture Day. Take time that day to celebrate America’s agricultural industry. Remember: no farmers, no food.
– Pettus L. Read may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org