September 16, 2012

Agriculture influenced by science

Peter Hagar

---- — My grandfather was born in the family farmhouse near Cumberland Head in 1893. Agriculture in those days was diversified. The farm had milking cows, sheep, pigs and raised hay and small grains like oats and wheat.

Much of the crops and food produced were for the use of the farmer, the rest was sold to pay for items not available on the farm. The cows were milked by hand, fields plowed by horses, and hay cut with a scythe and piled loose in the haymow.

Things did not change much for the next 50 years. It wasn’t until the early 40s that electricity finally arrived at his farm. Shortly after that he got his first tractor.

Rural electrification and the availability of gasoline-powered machinery brought about a significant change in how farmers farmed. Since then, the pace of agricultural production has increased by leaps and bounds. While the “good ole days” were not always good, they did help to develop the qualities that most farmers still possess today; determination, independence, patience, practicality and the ability to plan.

What has changed for the better is the availability of knowledge and the technology with which they are now equipped. In the late 1800s, the Land Grant universities were established to educate citizens in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and other practical professions. Later, in 1914, the Smith-Lever act formalized the formation of the Extension Service, a non-formal education program designed to help people use research-based knowledge to improve their lives.

During World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, the Extension Service helped farmers meet the increased production demands of the times, improved farm incomes and help rural America survive the years of economic depression and drought. The land grant college in New York, Cornell University, continues to address a wide range of human, plant and animal needs in both urban and rural areas.

The study and science of agriculture during the past 100 years has helped farmers to increase yields, improve the marketing of their products and improve their management skills. As farm numbers have dropped 65 percent since 1950, individual farm production has increased to where one farmer today supports the food needs of 155 people. This ability to adapt and increase production has been a direct result of the scientific advances in plant and animal genetics, increased mechanization and new technologies such as computerization, global position navigation and genetically modified crops.

Many of these changes are driven by economics. Already slim and still shrinking profit margins encourage farmers to adopt new measures and technologies that make their operation more efficient. Mechanization of milking facilities means more cows can be milked with less labor. Genetically modified insect-resistant crops require less pesticide. Newer and larger tractors can actually drive themselves around a field using precision GPS guidance.

All these technologies have one thing in common … they require larger farms and more intensive management to reap maximum advantage of their benefits and to pay for their sometimes considerable expense.

And as farms get larger and farmers adopt these new technologies, the general public becomes less and less familiar with what farmers have invested in their farm operation. From tractors that cost more than $100,000 and large computerized milking facilities that might cost more than $1 million, local dairy farmers still have to pay the bills with prices that are always variable.

Some of the newest tools available to farmers are smart-phone and tablet applications or apps. While computers have become commonplace on the farm, now farmers can download a multitude of useful agricultural apps to map fields, calculate breeding and calving dates, store machinery maintenance records, look up soil types and access commodity prices off the Internet.

When people wonder why our local farms have been shrinking in number and increasing in size, technology and economics are probably at the top of the list. Both require better management skills in addition to the traditional qualities of farmers from the good old days. Our local farms are still predominantly medium-sized family farms and yet many are still investing in new technology. As agriculture continues to change, our local farmers will continue to adapt and use the tools available to them to succeed.

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450.