2017-03-05 23:42:23 UTC
Is farming the first high-tech industry?
By Mike Walden, Guest columnist, 14 hrs ago
My paternal grandfather was a farmer in Ohio. He raised a variety
of crops, but his bread and butter were hogs. In southwestern
Ohio hogs were big business a century ago. In fact, at one time
Cincinnati -- where I was born -- was known as Porkopolis.
Farmers like my grandfather drove their hogs from outlying farms
to the packing houses in the city.
The day my grandfather bought a tractor changed the economy of
his small farm. The tractor was a technological breakthrough for
farmers. Tractors could plow many more acres in a day than a
horse or mule. Plus they conserved the energy of the farmer, who
could now ride rather than walk and push their way through fields.
As a result, the productivity (output per input) of farmers soared.
The productivity of farms jumped an amazing 140% between 1910-1950.
This is what technology does. It makes us get more from less.
And farm gains have kept coming. With the intro of machinery like
the combine harvester, techniques such as irrigation & pest control
& improved knowledge about adapting plants to the local environment,
farm productivity took another 170 percent leap from 1950 to 2010,
more than doubling the productivity gains in the nonfarm economy.
There have been three major economy-wide changes resulting from
this revolution in farm productivity. One is the need for fewer
workers in farming. With technology, machinery & improved knowledge
about growing continually increasing the amount of output each
farmer could achieve, millions of workers left farms in the 20th
This movement of workers off the farm in the first decades of the
last century was an important factor behind the development of new
industries in the nation. Ex-farmers moving to cities built and
operated the factories of the growing manufacturing sector. Later,
the children and grandchildren of these farm-to-factory workers
were behind the growth of the technology, education and healthcare
The second change has been urbanization. The increase in farm
productivity & decline in the number of farm workers dramatically
changed where people lived. In 1900, over a third of people still
lived on farms, & as late as 1980 the majority of North Carolinas
population resided in rural areas. Today, North Carolina is a
majority urban state, with two-thirds of the states people living
in cities or urbanized areas.
Last, gains in farm productivity have directly led to the increased
affordability of food. A century ago the average household spent
over one-fourth of their disposable income on food. Today, food
spending both for food eaten at home as well as food consumed in
restaurants requires only 9 percent of the typical households
So, just as enormous gains in farm productivity allowed workers to
develop & grow the manufacturing & service sectors, those gains
also freed up resources for households to spend on the outputs of
Are the productivity gains in farming over? Hardly! Experts see new
technologies being adopted on the farm that will make the advances
of a few decades ago seem quaint.
Farmers have always relied on information about farm conditions to
know when to irrigate, provide nutrients to crops & give treatment
to animals. In the past, much of this information was based on
guesswork or rules of thumb. But no longer.
Crop sensors & livestock biometrics are giving farmers access to a
wealth of real-time data telling them the precise condition of their
animals & crops. Treatments & applications will no longer be general,
but instead will be precise in amount and timeliness. For example,
rather than irrigating an entire field, farmers can determine what
parts of their fields need water and exactly how much. This both
saves money and improves production.
Farm equipment is also being taken to a new level. A long-time
problem with tractors is the compacting of soil caused by their
heavy tires. New tractor tire technology is being implemented to
reduce this issue. Also, environmentally friendly farm machinery
engines are being manufactured. And yes, as you may have guessed,
agricultural robots -- dubbed agbots -- may soon be coming to
farms, just as may be driverless tractors and combines.
As data & info become increasingly available to farmers, the need
to access & analyze the data becomes more important. Fortunately,
new internet access for remote rural areas is being perfected, as
are agricultural apps for smartphones & tablets to allow farmers
to apply sophisticated decision-making techniques to the data.
There are other technologies on the way in customized seeding,
drought resistant crops and environmentally-friendly and cost-
efficient pest control. The tech revolution in farming started
one-hundred years ago continues & will push farm productivity to
The late Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan titled his
memoirs, Better Than Plowing. Having grown up on a farm in
Tennessee in the early 1900s, he experienced the extraordinarily
hard work involved in farming, just as my grandfather did. Farming
is still hard, but technology has made it better and definitely
So is farming a high-tech industry? Some say it was actually the
first high-tech industry. You decide!
Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor &
extension economist in the Dept of Agricultural & Resource
Economics at North Carolina State University.