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APPENDIX A The Changing Face of American Agriculture Nearly 400 years ago, colonists be- gan to settle and clear the eastern seaboard of what would become the United States. The settlers transformed forests into crop land and pas- ture. They planted some seeds native to the new land and some they had brought from their homelands. They gradually built into herds the domesticated animals they brought with them. Farms grew, prospered, and multiplied. Over time, farming methods became more sophisticated, and yields and the area of land under cultivation increased. Farmers became more knowledgeable about which crop plants and animals were suitable for the highly varied climates and conditions around the United States. This growth notwithstanding, farms were largely self-contained en- terprises until about the 1930s, when the agricultural sciences began to progress rapidly. A scientific and technological revolution swept American agriculture as hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sophisticated machinery became available. Farmers came to rely on others for information, services, and important production inputs such as fertilizers and crop protection chemicals. Much of the new tech- nology was labor-saving, which helped to increase growth in farm size. This new technology also made manpower more available during the war years and for industrial development. Today, farmers purchase most of their basic production inputs from off the farm. Labor, management, replacement livestock, and farm- grown feed for livestock are the major inputs that still are often largely derived from or provided on the farm. Machinery, seeds, fertilizers, pes- ticides, livestock breeding stock, and capital are acquired off the farm, and must be paid for from annual farm earnings. 51
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52 APPENDIX A The demise of the self-contained farm has made farming a complex, even more risky way of life. Most farmers have to borrow money each year to help finance the high annual costs of producing and harvesting a crop, while complying with a wide range of government program rules and regulatory standards. Shrinking markets, greater global competition, fluctuating land val- ues, and declining prices for commodities in the 1980s placed many farmers in serious financial difficulties. Many have moved out of farm- ing. The farm crisis that began in 1981 is not over. The adjustments that American agriculture must make to remain competitive will af- fect agriculture's major supporting institutions and programs, includ- ing agricultural education. STRUCTURAL AND POLICY CHANGES Technological and economic forces have led to a reduction in the number of farms and a comparable increase in average farm size. In the 1930s, there were 6.3 million farms in the United States. Today, about 2.3 million remain. Farmers made up 30 percent of the U.S. pop- ulation in 1920 and 15 percent in 1950. In 1985, only 2.2 percent of Americans lived on farms-and only half of all employed farm resi- dents reported agriculture as their main occupation. Nevertheless, nearly 20 percent of the labor force works for the agricultural industry in some capacity (Petrulis et al., 19871. Very large farms now dominate the farm economy. Today, about 1 percent of U.S. farms account for nearly two-thirds of net cash farm income (USDA Economic Research Service, 1985; U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census and USDA Economic Research Service, 19861. Agricultural policies through the last few decades have also influ- enced the structure of agriculture by influencing the types and sizes of farms that can most effectively earn profits. Commodity programs have encouraged farmers to specialize in the production of one crop or a few related ones. They have also provided unintended incentives to farmers to use fragile soil and water resources for crop production. For decades, the programs have rewarded farmers for increasing the number of acres they can enroll in farm programs and for using fertilizers and pesti- cides to increase average yields as much as possible. Yet, the basic pur- pose of the programs has been to increase farm income by holding back production levels in relation to demand. Agricultural research and extension education programs responded to the needs of farmers seeking greater efficiency, higher yields, and more specialization. Vocational agriculture programs also followed suit, focusing in different parts of the country on changing crops, enter- prises, and production methods.
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APPENDIX A 53 The integration of the American agricultural sector into the inter- national economy advanced in the 1970s, as the United States contin- ued to export products and production expertise around the world. Since 1980, however, international recession, declining world depen- dence on food exports, and increased competition for agricultural ex- port markets have affected U.S. agricultural trade adversely. Market- ing, finance, and trading skills needed to regain markets are becoming more dominant factors in successful agribusinesses. These factors are also setting new priorities for business persons, policymakers, finan- ciers, and educators, including agricultural educators. Scientific progress is continuing to generate new techniques to in- crease crop yields; improve livestock health, reproduction, and growth; and develop new strategies to reduce production costs. Biotechnology and information technology have the potential already realized in some cases to improve agricultural productivity and fundamentally alter the characteristics of food and fiber products and production pro- cesses (NRC, 1985; OTA, 1986; NRC, 1987a,b). Animal production is likely to be the first area at the farm level to benefit markedly from biotechnology in the next decade, with plant production following to- ward the end of the century (OTA, 19861. Embryo transfers, gene insertion, growth hormones, and other tech- nologies stemming from genetic engineering will result in dairy cows that produce more milk while consuming less feed and livestock that grow faster with fewer pounds of feed. By the end of this century, bio- technology will allow some major crops to be altered genetically so that they become naturally resistant to the diseases and insects that now force farmers to treat crops with pesticides. Other developments will make possible crops with the ability to produce a higher level or qual- ity of protein, manufacture their own plant nutrients, and suppress weeds and insects. Increasing international competition in food and fiber markets in- cluding the U.S. food market-will force U.S. farmers and agribusi- nesses to adapt and keep pace with technological advances and market opportunities. Leaders in American agriculture stress the need to de- velop management skills to use new technologies more effectively. Leaders also see a need for policy reform if U.S. agriculture is to com- pete profitably in international markets. Even more so than in the past, human skills, creativity, and knowledge will be fundamental to building and sustaining U.S. agriculture's competitive edge. Hence, the role of agricultural education today is more important than ever for the professional in agriculture as well as the consumer, policy- maker, and business person.