An ag engineering professor wanted students to ask someone in agriculture what they felt were the top two advancements in agriculture in the past 100 years. Earlier this week, I attempted to narrow the list to the top 10.
However, if college students can come up with just two advancements, so can I. My two top choices for the greatest changes in agriculture in the past 100 years would be tractors and hybrid seed corn.
Without those two developments, we would still be farming with horses on 80 acres, raising open-pollinated seed without advanced genetics. That’s hardly a recipe for feeding the world.
The change from horses to tractors stretched from the ‘teens into the mid- to late 1940s. Several more recent advances, including Roundup Ready crops, yield monitors and autosteering, were adapted much more rapidly. I have several pieces of original equipment literature from the ’30s and ’40s. Many booklets for McCormick Deering, New Idea, John Deere and others include tractor-drawn equipment, but still offer horse-drawn implements.
Why did farmers move to tractors slowly? Were early tractors too cumbersome? Was it due to the Great Depression?
Perhaps it marked a transition in lifestyle. It was harder to get attached to steel on wheels than a horse. One story that circulates in Indiana goes like this: A farmer’s wife saw her husband working hard while others bought tractors, and begged him to get a tractor. He loved his horses. Finally, he relented and ordered a Co-op tractor. Before the tractor was even delivered, the farmer became so distraught over the idea of turning his horses out to pasture that he committed suicide. Someone else bought the tractor. I can show it to you if you like.
Regardless of how long it took to convert to tractors, agriculture would never be the same again. Farmers would farm more acres and produce more food. And the John Deere 60, Allis-Chalmers WD-45 and International M would set the stage for today’s John Deere R Series and the autonomous Case IH tractor.
Hybrid seed corn
Pests liked open-pollinated seed. Farmers in the ’20s poured tar along the edges of fields to stop chinch bugs. Even with hybrid corn, my father was taught in GI Bill classes for returning World War II veterans that planting corn later helped
beat corn borer. He kept up that practice even long after there were other remedies.
You could make the case that nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and GMO traits are all responsible for helping a Georgia corn farmer top 500 bushels per acre on two different 10-acre plots in 2016.
The truth is, however, that unless plant breeders had the basic tool to begin with, hybrid corn — a framework they could use to select for improved disease and insect resistance and better yield — nothing else would matter. A GMO open-pollinated variety resistant to corn borer might make 30 bushels per acre instead of 20. That would hardly feed the world.
Hats off to the early pioneers who stuck with tractors when there was no power steering or live power-takeoff, and to those who stuck with hybrid seed corn when it still didn’t stand up to diseases as well as they might have liked. They are the true pioneers who set the stage for feeding the world.