In 1919 farmers represented 31% of the workforce, there were 6.3 million farms, and average farm size was 138 acres. In 2010, average farm size was 418 acres, the number of farms was 2.2 million, and farmers represented about 2% of the workforce. In 1910, a single farmer could feed 2.5 people and now a single farmer feeds 130. In the next 20 years, we may need to double that.
How did we get here? How are we going to get “there”? Farmers and ranchers have never been short on work ethic, drive, or a deep respect and understanding for the land we farm and the animals we raise. But without question technology has been the enabling catalyst of our success. Engineering technology builds equipment that is stronger, faster, and increasingly gentle with our land, air, and water. Biotechnology is selecting plants which are specialized for the equipment we use, the soil that nurtures them, and for the products they will become or the livestock that they feed. Animal and nutrition science innovation is developing livestock which are bred to be strong and healthy, to minimize impact on the environment, and meet consumer dietary needs as well as particular tastes and preferences. These products are distributed using the safest, most efficient network of processors, wholesalers, retailers, and logistics specialists and (what I hope will one day again be) the best infrastructure in the world.
Technology and innovation have enabled these developments and technology will enable us to feed the world in a profitable, sustainable manner. But a more important thread in the commentary above is that agriculture is a system of systems, each unique and in many ways independent from the others, but inescapably interconnected. Like the example relationship of equipment, crops, livestock, consumer, and environment described above; the food and agriculture industry is deeply and irreversibly interconnected and it is in this interconnectivity that we discover many of our strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.
How has technology changed your operation in your lifetime? What unexpected challenges or unintended consequences have arisen? Where will technology make the biggest impact on the farm in the next decade?