April 8, 2016
We begin this snapshot of the 1970s – the fourth decade of Soybean Digest – by examining back issues from November 1974 through October 1975.
Agriculture and farm life in the 1970s saw huge change, prosperity, inflation, loss of price supports, rising land rates – all leading into the farm crisis of the late-1970s into the 1980s. Among the historic milestones:
In 1970 there were 2.7 million farms; average size was 390 acres. Farm population was 9.7 million, compared to U.S. population of 204 million. One farmer fed an estimated 48 people.
The early 70s saw Secretary of Ag Earl Butz succeed in reversing a 30-year trend in agriculture, moving away from heavy dependence on price supports toward a free-market economy. A big driver of this was huge wheat sales to USSR followed by further U.S. grain stocks depletion by drought.
In 1973, with high grain prices due to growing exports, Butz reduced set-aside acres from 25 million to 7.4 million acres and encouraged farmers to “plant fence row to fence row.” He was widely quoted advising farmers to “get big or get out…adapt or die.”
Overall farm income jumped along with grain prices, from $2.3 billion in 1972 to $19.6 billion in 1973, and stayed high for most of the decade. Livestock producers were caught in a price squeeze as feed prices jumped, drastically reducing inventory of hogs, cattle and chickens.
The 1970s period has been characterized broadly as an asset driven period of farm prosperity, likely initiated by a brief period of high farm income. Land prices jumped 30% per year from 1973 to 1975. In fact from 1969 to 1978, farmland prices increased 73% due to high returns and federal policies that increased incentives for investing in agriculture. But in 1980, farmland prices began to decline in response to Federal monetary policy that raised interest rates to combat inflation. The rapid escalation in interest rates and energy prices precipitated a farm financial crisis that led to farm bankruptcies and bank failures throughout the 1980s.
The Environmental Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 ushered in a national effort to improve air and water quality. The no-till and ridge-till push also began making inroads, yet at the same time the fence-row to fence-row push was removing conservation practices.
After congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1971 (which basically allowed private companies to patent new hybrid seeds), many commercial seed companies developed new corn soybean hybrids.
In the early 1970s, soybean sales passed corn to become America's number one cash crop; the production value of corn was greater, but much of the corn was used on the farm for feed.
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