Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Economist is Right: Farming as Rocket Science.

Like many farm kids, I grew up learning how to build rockets.  Though miniature in size, the same components that made NASA rockets fly worked with our model rockets too.  The rockets contained real engines, cargo bays, and parachutes that would deploy (if everything went right) on descent.  I never thought that building rockets had anything to do with farming, but a recent article The Economist has changed my mind: 

BEFORE growing up to become farmers, a startling number of America’s rural kids are taught how to build rockets. Every year rural skies fill with mini-missiles built by children. The largest fly hundreds of feet, carrying altimeters, parachutes and payloads of eggs. Baseball diamonds are popular launch sites, as are alfalfa fields: the latter tend to be large and, compared with other crops, alfalfa tolerates a fair bit of trampling. All this tinkering and swooshing explains a lot about American farms.
The Economist article explains that 4-H clubs, a purely American invention, are one reason so many farm kids take up rocket building a young age.  4-H clubs promote science, not just animal husbandry that so many are familiar with.  Other US institutions also foster interest in science, including the FFA and land grant universities.  These institutions, well entrenched in rural US culture, have enormous impact on developing  farmers who embrace innovation, rather than cling to the farming methods of their anscestors.  Much of the world lacks similar institutions--and as a result, lacks the agricultural innovation found here.

The Economist makes a point that I've often considered to be true.  The reason the US is so good at producing abundant and cheap food is not because big agribusiness corporations engineer highly efficient food production systems, but because US farmers embrace innovation by nature:
Foreign rivals are right about the power of market forces in America, but wrong to see its farmers as passive victims. Americans have thought differently about agriculture for a long time—and not by accident. Settled in a rush of migration, peaking in the 1880s, Nebraska’s prairies were parcelled out to German, Czech, Danish, Swedish and even Luxemburgish pioneers. From the start the plan was to convert Old World homesteaders to the scientific ways of the New World. As the system developed, Congress sent county agents from universities to teach menfolk modern farming and their wives such skills as tomato-canning. In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. Older folk resisted such newfangled ideas as planting hybrid corn bought from merchants rather than seedcorn from their own harvests. Enter the 4-H movement, which gave youngsters hybrid seeds to plant, then waited for the shock as children’s corn outgrew their parents’. Later youngsters promoted such innovations as computers.
The Economist's article is written from a foreign perspective, which makes its observations even more telling.  From this midwestern farm boy, its analysis is right on point.  Read the Economist article here:  Farming as Rocket Science.

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