TIME Flies: Part 3

June 5, 2009

In addition to bad hairdos, Woodstock, and butterfly collars, the ‘70s also brought with it groundbreaking technologies that propelled many U.S. businesses into a new era. Farming was no exception.

But the new technologies that improved efficiency and boosted yields came with a hefty price tag. The cost of farming skyrocketed during the decade, and the low profit margins that have long haunted the profession got even thinner.

TIME magazine explored this technology revolution in a 1978 cover story, “The New American Farmer,” and what they discovered still holds relevance today. Some of the most eye-catching passages in the article include:

Revolutionary changes are sweeping the croplands, making agriculture an increasingly capital-intensive, hightechnology, mass-production business. As a result, U.S. farmers are dividing into two distinct classes. Small farmers, who do not have the technical expertise, are rapidly leaving the land. Large farmers, like [Minnesota producer Pat] Benedict, who know how to use credit and the latest in agricultural science, are gaining an ever greater share of the market. They produce most of the food that the U.S. eats and almost all that it sells to the world.

The successful farmer today must understand enough engineering and science to participate in a technological upheaval that is changing the very shape of the land and the nature of his crops. Says Lawrence Rappaport, chairman of the department of vegetable crops at the University of California at Davis: “Agriculture is now in perpetual revolution, and there is no end in sight.” People flying over the West and Midwest see an unusual pattern on the terrain below: not the familiar farm land with checkerboard squares, but large polka dots, the result of costly ($50,000 each) center-pivot irrigation machines that automatically propel themselves around the fields in a circle.

Because of the technological revolution, one farmer in the U.S. now feeds 59 people. Elsewhere, the ratio of total population to the number of farmers and farm laborers is 19.2 in Western Europe, 13.7 in Japan, a mere 10 in the Soviet Union. U.S. agriculture feeds people well and cheaply too. The average American intake of more than 3,000 calories per day is among the highest in the world, and though citizens of some other nations match the U.S. in calories, probably none do in variety of diet.

[W]here is the next generation of Pat Benedicts to come from? That is perhaps the most important question in American agriculture. High interest rates, soaring prices for land, machinery, fertilizer and pesticides, and the very fact that farmers must operate on a large scale to be fairly confident of regular profit, make it difficult for operators of small- and medium-sized farms to expand and even tougher for young farmers to get started.

Another problem is whether farmers can keep up the rate of technological innovation that has made U.S. agriculture the productivity wonder of the world. So far, agricultural tinkerers are continuing to develop new techniques and devices. One of them: a herbicide sprayer with a receiver that catches any spray that does not hit a plant and recycles it into the pump, economizing on spray and preventing pollution of the ground. Another innovation is an irrigation system that covers even more ground than a center-pivot machine; it is a diesel-powered contraption that pushes a boom a half mile long and irrigates 320 acres at a crack.

In general, the greatest problems concerning agricultural technology seem to be whether farmers can keep up with it and scrape up the money to use it.

Despite production costs that have continued to soar (a tractor now can cost $150,000 or more) and commodity prices that still hover around 1970 levels (and that’s not even adjusted for inflation), America’s farmers have kept up with science and technology in part because they have to in order to remain profitable.

Today’s GPS-guided, self-steer machines that make planting and harvesting possible in the dark; computerized sprayers with low-drift nozzles that precisely apply pesticides and herbicides; and genetically modified crops that boost yields and lower input costs would have seemed out of this world to TIME’s reporters more than three decades ago.

Thanks to new innovations like these, the new American farmer provides food and fiber for about 140 people in a sustainable way.

And with the global population expected to explode—from 7 billion to 9 billion people by 2050 according to the United Nations— America’s 125,000 full-time farmers and ranchers will need to improve efficiency even more to continue to feed the world.