With all of its ups and downs, how has agriculture forged such an important place in the American economy over time? Actually, according to the U.S. Department of State, agriculture, from the nation’s earliest days, had held a crucial place in the economy.
Farming, of course, has played an important role in any society, but in America, agriculture had particular value as the nation expanded and grew in power. From the earliest days, the State Department noted, farmers were seen as exemplifying economic virtues, such as hard work, initiative and self-sufficiency. Our country was really built on a series of small farms dotting the landscape and creating some trade, but mostly fending for themselves. If they grew it or raised it, they ate it. If they had anything left over, they sold it.
Interestingly, farming was also a major draw for early immigrants who came from places where land ownership was not possible. Here, they found that owning a small farm was their ticket into the American economic system. Millions of descendents of those early immigrant families still farm today, though not in typical 160 acres-in the-valley fashion! Today, it’s by sections, and what has been termed industrial agriculture by opponents, and strong family farming by proponents. No matter how you look at it, it’s big, strong, and a driver of the American economy and that of the world.
As the nation grew so did the notion held by farmers that they could produce more and more, and of Americans that they could consume more and more. Our American farmers have always been successful at growing more food than our citizens need and from early times created a surplus most years that could become a strong export system.
The State Department pointed out that American farmers owe their ability to produce such large yields to a number of factors, but extremely favorable natural conditions (most years) is chief among them. The Midwest has some of the richest soil on the planet, rainfall is modest to abundant most years, and river and underground aquifers provide plenty of water for irrigation where rainfall is sparse.
Also important to the growth of our agriculture has been the use of capital investment and trained farm labor over the years. While unemployment has been high and skilled workers in most of the economy hard to find, farm labor has remained dedicated and well-educated. Banks in agricultural areas have served farmers well, especially in comparison to the devastation experienced by the nation at large at the hands of runaway super banks. Farmers still partner with their local bankers and get the job done.
Principally, they purchase tractors and combines with air-conditioned cabs and GPS onboard. They have fast-moving plows and tillers, too. Biotechnology has allowed for development of disease and drought-resistant seeds to use in conjunction with sophisticated fertilizers and pesticides. While environmentalists oppose heavy use of chemicals on the farm, they have made today’s amazing yields, exports and our breadbasket for the world possible.
Today’s farmers still have major challenges, not the least of which is the weather. They face the vagaries of the marketplace, environmental activism and regulation, and the receding largess of the federal government. But in most cases it’s still worth it, and you can’t begin to compare the wonders of our current agriculture with the hard-scrabble existence of 1776.
I’ll see ya.
An Iowa native, Peter Graham has been a rural newspaper editor for more than 40 years. He currently edits a twice-weekly paper in Western Iowa. You can contact him at (712) 642-2791 or [email protected] sourivalley times.com