By Jay Akridge
As readers of Agri-News know, Governor Mitch Daniels has declared March Agriculture Appreciation Month in Indiana. This month we are celebrating and recognizing the vital role agriculture plays in every aspect of our lives—from food to fiber to fuel—and agriculture’s contributions to maintaining a strong economy and providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Thinking about our agricultural industry this month has me reflecting on what it means to me and how it has changed. I grew up in a small farming community in Western Kentucky. My grandfather started our family business in 1933. What began as ‘Ruble’s Grocery’ evolved into ‘Akridge Farm Supply’, a business serving area farmers and rural residents. My father spent his career in the family business, and now my brother runs it and his son works there. I literally grew up in that store, and given my career path with the Purdue College of Agriculture, have been involved in serving agriculture my entire life. From that vantage point, let me offer a few comments in celebration of Indiana agriculture as we near the end of Agriculture Appreciation Month.
It’s interesting to think about how much has changed since my grandfather opened Ruble’s Grocery:
- From a time when national news was hard to get (maybe picked up from the newsreel at the local movie theatre), agriculture is now a world where information is available constantly, and so interconnected that we monitor Brazilian production and Chinese consumption to stay current on what prices will be in Indiana – in real time.
- Technology that would seem like science fiction to my grandfather is commonplace on farms today: tractors that steer themselves; herbicide-tolerant seeds; 120-foot planters that will plant 90 acres per hour. Computers are as pervasive on a commercial farm as tractors.
- In 1931, the average corn yield nationally was 24 bushels per acre. The 2010 yield was 153 bushels, and we hear talk of a 300 bushel average in the not-so-distant future.
- Contemporary agriculture uses less energy and water, fewer pesticides, and less fertilizer per unit of crop production than 30 years ago: aggregate fertilizer usage has leveled off in recent years while productivity continued to increase. Soil erosion is roughly half what it was 30 years ago with even more improvements on the horizon.
- In 1933, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans spent more than 25 percent of their income on food. In 2000, it was below 10 percent for the first time in U.S. recorded history, and down to 9.6 percent in 2008. Contrast that with some of the world’s poorest countries, where food costs up to 70% of income.
- Today’s agriculture must feed more than 300 million Americans daily, with fewer people involved. In the 1970s, I gave a 4-H speech on the food system in which I remember saying that a farmer at that time fed maybe 70 or so people. Today’s number is more than 140.
But Indiana agriculture is more than corn, soybeans, beef, pork, poultry and dairy: there is another part of agriculture in Indiana that is important and should be celebrated. We’re seeing a surge in interest in small farms, organic farms, local foods, farmers’ markets, home gardening, and agro-tourism. There is an important and growing market for locally grown, organically produced foods. USDA reports growth in Indiana farmers’ markets is among the fastest in the nation. More than 50 commercial wineries now operate in Indiana. There is a strong renewed interest in home gardening. (As an aside, we had a big home garden when I was growing up; my grandfather said it was full of ‘baseball weeds’ because my brother and I were playing baseball when we were supposed to be pulling weeds.)
Reflecting these trends, our agriculture industry in Indiana continues to evolve. A fact that may surprise many is that there were more farms in Indiana in 2007 (60,938) than in 2002 (60,296). We’re seeing more small farms as well as more large farms, with fewer farms in between. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of Indiana farms run by women.
Our Indiana agriculture is at the center of some of the most pressing issues that we as a society face: feeding a growing population, climate change and environmental issues, renewable sources of energy, food safety and security, nutrition and obesity, and stewardship of our natural resources. Today, more than one billion people—nearly one-sixth of the world’s population—suffer from chronic hunger. The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion in the next 40 years. And, as incomes grow, people improve their diets and thus consume more. Agricultural production will have to grow by 70% to 100% to feed everyone and studies suggest 80% - 100% of that production will come from existing land. At the same time, society is asking the agriculture industry to continue to focus on reducing environmental impacts, preserving natural resources, lowering its carbon footprint, and for more say in how animals are produced.
Our Indiana agriculture is a tapestry of big and small; conventional and organic; crop, livestock, and forest products. While it has become quite fashionable to tout the merits of one ‘type’ of agriculture over another, in the end we need the production of all these different agricultures to serve the growing numbers and the needs of our complex consumers. As we celebrate those who produce our food, fiber, and fuel, let’s also pledge to continue to support them as they respond to the grand challenges our society faces.