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Three Guys Walked into a Test Plot: A Professor, a Farmer and An Extension Agent

February 1, 2010

Today's self-propelled combines are set up with monitors inside the cab

Why agriculture technology advances depend more than ever on relationships to protect and advance our healthy, abundant and economical food supply. First in a two-part series.

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau

Around the breakfast table before the sun’s rise, one Midwest farmer explains why even the simplest of technology advances are important and helped keep him in agriculture. “Without the enclosed cab on tractors, I may not have followed my father into farming. Growing up I froze in winter when driving the tractor and melted in the summer. But that single, simple change on farm equipment made me think I could stick this out.”

Arizona farmers agree. Though our winters may not get as cold as other parts of the country, 120 degree weather in the summer makes the enclosed cab a major improvement for farmers here in the southwest.

From the basic to the complex, agriculture technology advances ensure that you and I have a safe and plentiful food supply.

Throughout history scientific and technological advances have greatly aided agriculture. Simple, incremental improvements in crop production can be traced to the first uses of the humble hoe in ancient times. Today, farmers improve crop production with such technologies as global positioning systems (GPS), biotech and so much more.

In ancient times, gleaning new information was straightforward: Advances in crop and livestock production spread by word of mouth. As new ideas were tried out and applied to growing crops and livestock, they were shared and passed to the next generation. Neighboring tribes even exchanged ideas with one another and with new settlers.

In more recent history, our nation’s urgency to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science and engineering as our country grew drove the establishment of land-grant universities designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which allowed for funding agriculture research. For the first time, scientists studying at these universities could devote their lives to research and development of agriculture products and practices for livestock and crop production. It paved the way for a revolution of critical advances in agriculture. These are advances that have allowed us to nutritiously and economically feed a burgeoning population.

But to take the newly developed methods and technology discovered in these institutions beyond the four walls, they needed the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The Hatch Act provided federal funds to states to establish a series of agricultural experiment stations under the direction of each state’s land-grant university. The outreach mission was further expanded and extended by the Smith-Lever Act to include cooperative extension — the sending of agents into rural areas to help bring the results of agricultural research to the end users, the producers. These county extension agents exist to this day.

The evolution of this relationship between the professor, the farmer and the extension agent has meant that Arizona agriculture has benefited and contributed to the ever-evolving science of agriculture. More importantly, it’s meant Americans have access to safe, healthy, abundant and economical food.

Their partnership should bring us comfort. This team of experts is making sure that our food supply remains safe and plentiful.

Now More than Ever Let’s Commit to the Science

While we’re planning our own food budget at the dinner table before grocery shopping, it might also occur to us that more and more mouths around the world need to be fed. According to a recent report from the United Nations, the world needs a 70% increase in food production by 2050.

A tighter agricultural supply-demand balance in the future, rising food prices and the increasing role of agriculture commodities in meeting energy needs are all challenges emphasized during a recent presentation to the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).

Dr. Gale Buchanan, dean and director emeritus for the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, called attention to the finite resources available for production agriculture such as land, water, petroleum and fertilizer. The growing population, expectations for better living standards and the addition of animal protein to the diet are just a few things that are the impetus for change. One billion people in poor countries rarely get enough to eat, he pointed out. But as many rise out of poverty, they want to add to their diets.

This translates to more demands made on the global agriculture industry.

“The future success of agriculture depends on production improvements,” said Buchanan who presented an issue paper on behalf of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) at ASTA’s 49th annual Vegetable and Flower Seed Conference. “We’ve got to take what we’ve got and make it better.”

The paper, “Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future: Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges,” was recently released by CAST and is an update to the first paper published by CAST in 1973, written by geneticist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug. This paper, one of the last papers Borlaug contributed to, is available online at http://www.cast-science.org.

“The solutions or means of addressing these challenges must come from increased productivity, because there is not a lot of available land to bring into production,” Buchanan explained. Buchanan discussed the global economy and explained how everything is connected and nothing is isolated — from policies and the environment, to infrastructure and supply and demand. Every country must seek to optimize its infrastructure to improve production.

“There must be a greater commitment for sustained support of research,” Buchanan said. “We need to work with others around the world on these issues critical to our sustainability.”

Others in the research and development arena understand this too. “I have seen growers going through extremely difficult times due to changes in labor availability,” says Pedro Andrade-Sánchez, precision agriculture specialist and assistant professor for Arizona’s land-grant university, the University of Arizona. “Moreover, we have seen in the last ten years a trend of increasing cost of energy-intensive farm inputs. At the same time we have seen great technological developments made commercially available and being adopted at high rates.”

Andrade-Sánchez goes on to say, “With overall production costs increasing at rates much higher than the prices of agricultural commodities, the current economic context of farming is not as good as it used to be. Yet our farming systems are highly advanced technologically compared with other countries. That to me indicates that we have to intensify our problem-solving skills, get the best of our engineering innovation in order to increase the efficiency of our resource use. We need to improve in order to be competitive in the global context and keep our farming systems healthy, profitable and sustainable. New technology will help us get to this level.”

Here for two years at Big MAC, Andrade-Sánchez and a team are in the thick of several projects working with local growers to test, research and develop precision agriculture technology with the aim to reduce costs and increase production for a growing world.

The next post in the series will look into the relationship between the Professor, the Farmer and the Extension Agent. The way modern-apostles of the food movement tell it, you’d conclude today’s agriculture is evil and lacking in rational science and research-based practices. But the next article in the series will show how the relationship between professors, farmers and extension agents has meant a coordinated effort of providing a safe and pletniful food supply for you and me.

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