If you don’t eat, don’t worry about farmers going out of business

I may be edging slowly into the early 60s of my age, but I’m not going to be left behind when it comes to learning something new. I know there are those who have the idea you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I just think they don’t have the patience to try. True, it does take us “old hounds” a little longer to find the trail than it used to for something new. However, you have to give it to us that we do have determination once we set our minds to the task at hand. And, social media is one thing that is something I’m trying to “tree” these days.

Several months ago, I joined in the Facebook revolution that is now taking over the country and will have to tell you that it is better than a party line was for my grandmother several years ago. It is also an excellent tool to educate others about what you do, and being one in agriculture, it’s a good way to talk to that 98 percent who no longer have any connection to farming other than eating. Each day I have FB friends who are discussing food cost, what’s in their food, how to grow their own food and even how to grind their own grain for a healthier diet. With topics like these coming from my “friends” right into my home, I have a perfect opportunity to talk about my favorite subject, which is also my life-long career, agriculture.

The only concern a Tennessee farmer had in past years when selling his crop or livestock and making a living 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. Now even a post on Facebook can have an effect on his bottom line if he is selling locally. With the world population at 6.90 billion as of March 17, 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 agricultural commodities totaling $1.2 billion, 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, such as the problems right now in Japan.

Technology is allowing farms to get larger, which is a matter of have to rather than want to in many cases. 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 78,000 farms are located in Tennessee alone with 43 percent of the state’s total land area used for farmland. Individuals, family partnerships or family corporations operate almost 98 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.

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 $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, 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. 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.” In fact, that would be a good quote to share on my wall on Facebook.

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– Pettus L. Read is editor of the Tennessee Farm Bureau News and Director of Communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at pread@tfbf.com