The only marketing concern that Tennessee farmers had in past 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 and at his farm’s gate.
Today that has all changed. Tennessee farmers are constantly checking their smartphones or iPads for current markets around the world. I even rode with a farmer the other day who was listening to Rural Radio on satellite radio in his truck, catching up on the latest news on the corn markets. The farming world has changed from listening to the farm report at dinner time coming from the radio as the field crew ate their lunch before hurrying back to the fields, to a modern day of computerized tractors planting from satellite beams based on current world conditions. It is no longer your grandfather’s agriculture.
With the world population at 7.2 billion and expected to reach 9.7 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 in the millions, 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 76,000 farms are located in Tennessee alone, with 41 percent of the state’s total land area used for farmland. Agriculture and agri-business employ more than 502,000 individuals, or almost 14 percent of Tennessee’s workforce.
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 over $200,000 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. A Tennessee farmer in the 1930s and ’40s, before the machines were available, could harvest an average of 100 bushels of corn by hand in a nine-hour day. With today’s high-tech farming equipment, a recent report suggests that combines can harvest 900 bushels of corn per hour or 100 bushels of corn in under seven minutes with others doing even more! 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. Americans spend only six percent of their disposable income on food, which is half the amount spent by people in Germany.
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 26 is National Agriculture Day. Take time to celebrate America’s agricultural industry. Remember, no farmers – no food.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org