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Faces of modern agriculture in the United States

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Today, March 18, the U.S. agricultural community is observing the 42nd annual National Ag Day, celebrating the abundance provided by American agriculture.

For many Americans living in urban or suburban communities, their image of farming has been frozen in time, hearkening back to the dour farm couple portrayed in Grant Woods’ American Gothic painting. At the other end of the technological spectrum, some city dwellers have heard the phrase “corporate agriculture” being bandied about, and have conjured images of corporate-owned robot farmers harvesting crops and feeding livestock with little or no human intervention.

In fact, the true picture of farmers and farming in the United States falls somewhere between these two extreme visions. According to USDA estimates, non-family farms accounted for only 2% of all U.S. farms in 2007, although since such operations tend to be larger than average, they own 6.6% of all farm assets. To the extent that small family farms still exist, those households often rely on one or more family members earning off-farm income to get by—on average, their net income from farming activities is frequently negative.

Larger family farms generating at least $250,000 in gross farm revenue annually—the amount considered to be the minimum needed in most regions to support a family without off-farm income. These farms account for only about 12% of all farms but produce 84% of U.S. farm production by value. Many of these farmers have adopted cutting-edge technologies in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs, bringing the digital age to rural America.

Modern combines utilize GPS systems to gather information on crop yields in different parts of a field, and newer models allow for automatic steering of the equipment. These machines allow the farmer to track weather conditions and market prices in real-time on computer equipment, such as an I-Pad, while cultivating the fields. According to USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), 72% of all U.S. corn farmers surveyed used some form of precision agriculture technology on their farms in 2010, with the two most common applications being yield monitors (61%) and auto-steering (45%).

Some crop farmers, such as Dave Nelson from Ft. Dodge, Iowa, take the technology further, using  “prescriptive planting” information provided by so-called big data companies in agriculture, such as Climate Corp., to custom-plant fields, vary seeding rate, row width and fertilizer application rates depending on detailed weather information and the innate soil fertility of different parts of the field. Many farmers have explored the use of drones to help monitor their fields for disease or pest problems during the growing season. In February, the Federal Aviation Administration released draft rules which will allow agricultural drone use under certain restrictions, such as the operator not letting the drone go out of his or her sight.

In the U.S. dairy sector, some large-scale farmers, facing shortages of hired labor, now use robotic milking equipment to milk their cows. Farmers still have to monitor the equipment and gauge each animal’s milk quantity and quality. These factors are tracked through the radio identification tag each animal wears. In these operations, cows actually decide when they want to be milked, walking into the automated stalls where the computer identifies the cow and determines how recently it has visited the stalls. If milking is indicated, laser-guided mechanical arms sanitize the cow’s udder and then attach cups to the teats. The owners of the Schaendorf Dairy in Allegan, Michigan, installed three robotic units in 2012, milking 165 first-lactation cows in the facility. Their remaining 1,735 cows still use more traditional milking parlors. This robotic technology has been adopted earlier on a wide-spread basis in Canada and Europe than in this country. As of 2012, robotic milking equipment was in use in 24 states, with the highest numbers in the Midwest and Northeast.

All of this new technology enables U.S. farmers to continue to be among the most efficient in the world, keeping food costs to consumers low. As of 2013, the average American spent only 8.8% of his or her income on food and beverages consumed at home, the lowest among 85 countries tracked by USDA’s Economic Research Service.

In recent decades, improved technology in combination with other related factors, such as increased adoption of conserving agricultural practices, has also helped U.S. farmers to reduce soil erosion and agricultural chemical runoff from their lands. For example, the use of Round-up Ready soybeans has made it easier for farmers to adopt no-till cultivation practices for that crop. According to the Crop Residue Management Survey collected by the Conservation Tillage Innovation Center (CTIC), use of conservation tillage on U.S. soybean acres rose 36% between 1996 and 2008. As a result of these changes, the National Resources Inventory (NRI) indicates that soil erosion from cropland declined by 41% between 1982 and 2010. Similarly, EPA Water Quality Assessments have found that the river miles of U.S. waters impaired or degraded by agricultural runoff declined by 25% between 1996 and 2013.

All in all, U.S. consumers clearly benefit from recent technological advances in farming, making it a win-win situation for everyone concerned. For these reasons, all Americans should celebrate National Ag Day, not just the agricultural community.


Stephanie Mercier Stephanie Mercier (smercier@farmjournalfoundation.org)
Farm Journal Foundation @samara333

View more posts by Stephanie Mercier

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.