Research has led to much success in farming

February 07, 2011
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

I recently read an article by Rick Jordahl, associate editor of Pork Magazine, titled “U.S. Ag Research In Decline.”

He goes through the history of the land-grant university system, which helped to propel the U.S. into its role as the world’s leading food producer.

Regular readers of this column have heard me espouse the virtues of this brilliant model on more than one occasion.

Jordahl goes on to point out that lawmakers no longer see a need for them to invest in this research in light of the fact that Americans spend less of their disposable income on food than any other people in the world. At one time, Congress funded the Land Grant Universities well, seeing this research as in the public good just as President Lincoln did. We are shifting more to corporate-funded research, which leads to appearance of bias. When a company is funding your research, are you as willing to say this stuff doesn’t work?

In addition, with shrinking state budgets, agriculture faculty positions are being lost and with smaller enrollments in ag colleges, we are heading down the road that if not reversed will put us at a place we haven’t been in decades. Food safety and security are taken for granted here. I fear if we do not change the tide, my great-grandchildren will face problems not seen here since the 1600s.

For those of you who think I am being melodramatic, let’s take a look at our progress thus far. From 1970 to 2010, the world’s population has doubled. In that same time period, the world’s agricultural land base has not. U.S. farmers produce 18 percent of the world’s food on 10 percent of the world’s farmland.

From 1950 to 2000, average corn yields have risen from 39 bushels per acre to 153 bushels per acre. Cereal crops, such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, have increased 155 percent in yield over the last 50 years. In fact, from 1987 to 2007, American farmers grew 40 percent more corn, 30 percent more soybeans and 19 percent more wheat, all on the same amount of land.

So as we look back, in 1940, a farmer grew enough food for 19 people; in 1970, that number rose to 73 people; and in 2010, the number was up to 155 people. And we haven’t even mentioned the gains in animal agriculture.

Just take dairy, for instance. In 1980, the average cow produced 1,488 gallons of milk per year; in 2008, per-cow production had risen to 2,550 gallons.

These gains did not happen by accident. They occurred through hard work and publicly-funded research. Farmers have applied countless technologies and management strategies to reap this increases, all while the number of people involved in production agriculture has dropped to less than 2 percent of the population.

You might think that this advance in productivity has come at the sacrifice of the environment. Well, you would be wrong.

Practices such as crop rotation and no-till and conservation tillage have reduced soil erosion by 43 percent in the last 20 years.
What about fertilizer?

Today we grow 70 percent more corn from the same pound of fertilizer.

Successful farming requires thousands of things going right. Failures usually require one thing to go wrong.

So if you still think of the old Golden Book of Farmer Brown, you need to look around. Your farmer-neighbor has to be an agronomist, veterinarian, economist, meteorologist, conservationist and always an optimist. And that is before lunch.

Do you still think food comes from the grocery store?

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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