By Curt Zingula
Last week was Agriculture Awareness Week. Your response might be, “Geez, not another one of those countless whatever weeks.”
But fortunately, this designation offers farmers the opportunity to educate consumers about a topic, agriculture, we feel has become riddled with misinformation and misunderstanding.
Perhaps the most relevant topic is the term “factory farm.” While some people use this term in a derogatory sense, it’s actually a desirable attribute.
Industrial or “factory” farming is the practice of incorporating technology and mechanization into agriculture. Compared to simpler times in the past, this progress has landed modern farming outside of some people’s comfort zone.
In the United States, only about 1 percent of our work force is farmers, thanks to modern technology and mechanization. That allows the other 99 percent of Americans to engage in such things as the engineering, manufacturing and sales of cellphones, computers, automobiles, etc.
Some Third World countries, lacking in the capital and education to adopt modern farming practices, have upward of 80 percent of their work force engaged in farming. Those 80 percent can’t participate in manufacturing or service industries. Instead, they work in the hot sun, cold wind, dirt and manure to accomplish subsistence agriculture.
Modern agriculture’s critics argue that we would be better off farming the way great-grandpa farmed back in the 1940s. Trouble is, great-grandpa only had to produce for 135 million people. Today, farmers produce for our nation’s 310 million people plus millions of people in other countries, and do so on fewer planted acres than in 1940. By 2050, U.S. farmers will need to produce for an estimated 439 million people in our country alone. Unless we are willing to convert vast acres of new land to agriculture, adopting technology is essential.
Many of those same critics also claim that the environment was better off decades ago before modern farming. That simply isn’t true. Just the use of repeated tillage, instead of herbicides for weed control, led to severe erosion and filthy waterways. Doubters should research the campaign of Depression-era conservationist Ding Darling.
The advent of livestock confinement facilities also has been disparaged as “factory farming.” Like it or not, the first step in preventing manure from washing into streams is to confine livestock. Imagine the consequences if all of Iowa’s 50 million laying hens were “free range.”
In contrast to “factory farms,” there is a growing demand for niche farms such as organic and locally grown. Typically, products from specialty farms will cost more than similar products produced on an industrial scale. While some people will be able to afford custom-raised crops and livestock, many others will find the extra cost inaccessible.
Modern farms are indeed like factories — resources go in, labor and management process those into crops and livestock that other factories process into retail products. Despite this assembly line description, the many benefits of “factory farms” deserve our appreciation.l Curt Zingula of rural Central City has grown corn and soybeans in Linn County for the past 38 years. He describes himself as a student of agriculture ever since growing up on a crop and livestock farm in the 1960s. Comments: email@example.com