In many ways, the history of farming is about its future—how we went from hand tools and horses to self-driving tractors and $10,000-an-acre farmland.
Don Meyer, a local agriculture expert, and instructor at Illinois State University will dive into 200 years of ag history in the Great Corn Belt on Aug. 19 during a Bicentennial Speaker Series talk at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.
Meyer carves up Illinois farm history into four distinct eras—separated by seismic shifts in technology and world events. That includes the Western Frontier (1820s to 1850s), the Railroad Arrives (1850s to 1900), and Information Age and Mechanization Advancement (1900-1945). We’ve been in the Modern Era since after World War II.
GLT: Will there be a fifth era, distinct from the Modern Era?
Meyer: I think so. And technology will drive that. If you would’ve told me 20 years ago what we’re doing with technology today … we already have driverless cars and driverless tractors. Most of the time they have farmers in them, but the tractors are self-guided using satellite technology.
We’re using prescription weed control. If there’s no weed, we don’t need to spray. If the machine can find a weed, it sprays it.
We keep track of records of where we have problems with disease, and we only need to treat those spots. We’re putting our fertilizer on, we’re replacing the fertilizer that the crops are using. We’re putting it on where the yields are greatest. That’s where the greatest amount of fertilizer gets put back for next year’s crop.
We’re just really at the infancy stage of that. Most farmers today are not happy with a 200-bushel-an-acre corn crop. They’re looking in the very near future for 300 bushels to be the new norm.
What can we learn about ourselves by looking back in this way?
The theme of 200 years is replacing labor with technology, whether that’s hand tools with machines, or whether that’s replacing labor with electricity.
That’s been sort of a jobs program. Today’s tractors—you can’t just tear into it for an overhaul it like we used to when I was growing up. It’s all technology-based, and those are specialized jobs.
When you look at the support network that the average farmer has to have to operate their farm, t involves a lot of people. Twenty percent of the jobs are related to agriculture across the country.
We’re also in the era of capitalization. It takes a lot of money to get into farming. I just can’t quit my day job and say I’m gonna go rent some land.
First of all, the land is very competitive to even find. Most farmers don’t own their own land. They rent it because of the cost. On top of that, the average farmer probably has between $1 million and $2 million worth of equipment.
That’s probably the biggest challenge we have ahead of us, is who can afford to get into farming with the way it’s structured today. We don’t necessarily want to go back to the old days of farming everything by hand, but that is a barrier to getting young people involved in farming.
Illinois ranks third nationally in the export of agricultural commodities with $8.2 billion worth of goods shipped to other countries. In light of the recent trade disputes involving American farmers, when did international markets really open up to Illinois farmers for the first time?
(International exports) were there from the beginning. Once we got the trains to arrive, we could basically get our excess commodities onto a train. Then the trucking era. And just a tremendous amount of grain that goes down rivers in barges.
We’ve been a world supplier for a long time. As farmers adopted seed corn from 1900 to 1930, the Funk family here in town was a big part of the seed industry. They sold seeds to Europe in the early 1900s. We’ve been connected to the world for probably 100 years or more. That’s not new.
The more recent developments have impacted especially soybeans, which is one of our main lines here in Illinois.
Lots of discussion in Illinois agriculture right now about the Trump administration’s trade policies and retaliatory actions by other countries. In the history of Illinois agriculture, where does this moment fit in? Have there been others like it?
Yes, there have. I grew up in the 1960s. We had grain stored in almost every small town. The government built bins. The government was essentially taking the grain from the farmers because there was no market. We ended up just wasting some of that grain. Some of the humanitarian programs like Food for Peace came into play during that period. We were giving away the grain because it had no value here and would spoil.
Just like everything else in war and peace, you have to delicately handle this. Right now, we’re in a pivotal time in exploring what does this really mean.
Most farmers would rather trade than rely on government. One of the solutions right now is a government payout of some kind. Generally, that’s not a long-term fix. The free trade has been really good for the farm economy overall.
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