It Takes Conventional Agriculture To Feed A Nation

I have never been an active hunter or fisherman, but continue to be real supportive of those who do enjoy the sport of a good hunt or catch by consuming the results of their bounty. The other night, I was a guest at a wild game supper that gave me the opportunity to once again be very supportive of those who venture into our Tennessee landscape, and my plate was a good sign of that support.

Prior to the serving of the meal, as the fires burned under kettles of turkey, goose, rabbit and squirrel, I took the time to tour the farm buildings located on the farm where the supper was being held. The owner and host of the event is not only a very active sportsman, but he also is a collector of vintage farm equipment and items of days gone by. He has turned his backyard into a regular farm museum and many of the items hanging on several log buildings outback are things that are probably unrecognizable to a majority of today’s population. The walls of the log structures contained old horse harnesses, singletrees for hitching horse drawn equipment, axes of different types, saddles, bits, hand tools, pots, pans and other items too numerous to list of days back when farming was a major labor intensive occupation. I’m not saying farming today is still not labor intensive, but in the days of farming with horses and mules, plus chopping all your crops wi th a hoe, labor requirements for getting the crop out was something that today we may only read about or hear some of the older people talk about.

I did have the chance to grow up during some of that early-day manual farm labor involvement, and as I looked at a lot of those items on those old buildings, I must admit I was very appreciative of today’s modern agriculture. We grew cotton when it was picked by hand, milked cows by hand, I’ve helped with tobacco crops that took 13 months to grow, plowed corn with a horse, and did a lot of other farming the “old fashioned way” that developed a lot of character. Not much money, but a whole lot of character that continues to make me appreciate seeing a modern-day cotton picker go through a field of cotton in a matter of hours instead of weeks. Our corn crops were lucky to produce 30 bushels to the acre, where today we see fields making four times that amount or more. Our little farm fed a family of five, as well as provided an income for us to have other needs met along the way. But if you had to take what we produced to share with the rest of the c ountry to help feed our population today, someone would be having their own wild game supper without the invited guests.

I continually read articles that blasphemes today’s conventional agricultural methods and I just really don’t understand why. I left our little farm to study soil science and got a BS degree in that very subject. Since those years in the 60s, there have been such advancements in taking care of our soil and environment; it is simply amazing. When I was growing up, it was nothing to see a ditch in the middle of a Tennessee field higher than your head, cut by water runoff from erosion. Today those same fields are in production without the ditches, and farm erosion has been reduced by more than 40 percent since 1982. I saw just the other day a statement in a major Tennessee newspaper that said current agricultural practices destroy soil. All I can say to that is, if that is so, then why does our production continue to increase each year with the use of less chemicals and fertilizers? No-till planting has preserved more Tennessee soils over the years than any prac tice of those who continue to bring up the “old ways” of doing things that the newspaper article seemed to promote. The University of Tennessee’s agricultural research is second to none and is proven by years of detailed study on farmland in our state. If I’m going to look for an answer to help make my soils better to produce food for you, I want to see the research from a proven institute like UT, rather than follow a method given to the pilgrims by Native Americans and reintroduced by an “eco-innovator.”  

The future needs all of our farmers. I am all for those who want to return to a simpler life and to once again start up a small farm much like I lived on 50-plus years ago. It is a great life, but it must be understood that it is not a get rich project at all. You may be able to feed your family as we did and provide food for some others, but those farms will not feed this nation by themselves. Conventional agriculture is the only way we can continue to be a strong food source for this country and the only way to keep our grocery shelves full, as well as our people fed.  


– Pettus L. Read is Director of Communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at