Articles, Blog

Fred Kirschenmann – Get specialized or get out: The industrialization of agriculture

August 13, 2019


Well it was really the discovery of fossil
fuels: coal and then later oil and natural gas which drove the
Industrial Revolution because we began to realize that with
this cheap energy we could do a lot of things which could essentially force nature to do what we
wanted to do to the sole benefit of humans and behind that to some extent was the enlightenment which really saw humans
as somehow special and separate from nature and you know
Rene Descartes once said humans had the responsibility to be the masters and possessors of
nature that was our role, that’s what we had to do.
Agriculture was actually one at the last enterprises to adopt the
Industrial Revolution it basically wasn’t adopted into a large
scale until after the second World War but the incentive for it started to
develop in the early 20th century and of course the idea here was that agriculture needed to get on board with the rest at the industrial economy
and that was… the basic principle of the industrial economy
was maximum efficient production for short term
economic return and if you didn’t do that we just weren’t going to be successful Well how do you do maximum efficient
production for short term economic return? Well you specialize! so Henry Ford once famously said that
people could buy any car they wanted to as long as it was a black Ford Model T because that was the only one he was going to manufacture. That
was the specialization part And then he didn’t teach every employee to put a whole automobile
together. That was too complex. He taught each one to do a small piece
in the assembly line so that was the simplification of the management And then of course economies of scale: produce enough automobiles to bring the price down where even the people who are manufacturing could afford to buy them. So that was
the economies of scale approach. So when we started to adopt those same
principles to agriculture what did we do? Well you specialize. So we told farmers
that they needed to get out of complex
systems because that was not efficient they
needed to learn how to do a few things really well so we started to have farmers instead of
having crops and livestock go for either crops
or livestock and if they went for crops you know to
do just one or two crops like corn and soybeans in Iowa and then simplify your management. So all of the technologies that were being produced and this is where things like Roundup Ready seeds became important
because if you used Roundup Ready soybeans for example if you didn’t have complex system of
controlling weeds you could wait you could plant your soybeans, wait until
the weeds came up and then spray them with Roundup – let’s kill all the weeds and then the soybeans were in a weed-free environment so that
simplified the management. And then economies of scale of course farmers continue as they
simplify their management to specialize they could manage more so instead of doing five hundred acres of
soybeans they can do 10,000 acres of soybeans And then the incentive on the part all of our public policies even our Secretaries of Agriculture told farmers they had to get big or get out They had to farm fence row to fence row. That was the way to be successful and so this is what we have now And so in states like Iowa now for example
92% of our cultivated land is in just two crops: corn and soybeans.
Now the other thing that supported that was We’ve had over the last century relatively stable climates and if you’re
gonna have 90% of our crop land in corn and soybeans you need weather patterns that are consistently
favorable to corn and soybeans.

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