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The world's future hinges on the harvest


By Ken Root

I write this as the Harvest Moon begins to wane and marks the traditional time that farmers reap their crops. The season is late this year in corn country as weather has been anything but ordinary and predictable. Agriculture now turns its attention to the most important task: bringing grain from the fields and into the granaries. Securing this year’s harvest assures next year’s survival until the process can be repeated again. We have become assured that there will be crops every year, but that does not deter the farmer and the agribusiness sector from diligently carrying out the processes and practices of the season.

Mankind has not always followed this agrarian lifestyle. Ancestrally, we were nomadic hunter gatherers who moved to find food rather than grow it in our fields. The Native American took the horse but he did not take the plow. Had he done so, the culture and landscape would surely be different. But Native American cultures knew how to grow crops, and there is evidence of their ability to cultivate the land and survive on its bounty. Some tribes lived for hundreds of years on the same land as farmers before they were run out by drought or nomadic warriors.

Our European ancestors were schooled in farming when they arrived in North America but it took the local tribes to show them how to put fish and corn into the ground together to grow a crop. It didn’t take long to show our invasive nature as forests were turned to fields and used up by generations that believed their best option was to move west to find new land to exploit rather than preserve what they had. Our Midwestern ancestry came primarily from Northern European farming communities who believed a farm could be replenished year after year and poorly farming the land was a social sin if not a condemnation by God. They also happened to settle on land that was resistant to erosion, with deep topsoil and well watered by nature in most years. As a result, they survived the long, cold winters and produced bountiful harvests year after year.

There is also an aspect of agriculture that is much harder to define. It is the spirit of the grower. Inside each farmer is the will to till the fields, to combine sweat and science to create the greatest probability of producing a crop. There is also faith that work will yield a reward. I don’t know how many farmers truly pray to God for a good harvest but most realize that so much of their fate is beyond their control that belief in a higher power is the only way to bring their minds to rest. Even with our technology of the day, we cannot control the climatic extremes of the landscape. This year’s catchiest phrase was: “The best corn was planted before the last snow!”

We rarely credit the sector of our society that provides goods and services for the production of our crops but without a network of manufacturing, transportation and technology, we would still be dropping fish and corn into a hole that was dug with a stick. It is a symbiotic relationship that production of food yields technology and technology ultimately yields more food.

It is the greatest accomplishment of mankind to have a guarantee of economical food that is easy to attain. All other endeavors came forth only after we secured our food supply. The timing of our industrial advancement fits directly with the time when farmers were able to produce enough food to feed the whole of society. Much of our early technology was placed back into the agricultural sector. In the 1830’s, John Deere was an Illinois blacksmith who knew the agricultural community around him could provide for the needs of his family if he were to offer a product that he could sell, or trade, for grain, milk or meat. He had the strength of body and assurance of mind that allowed him to develop a plow to till the earth and increase the harvest.

In the late 19th century, farming progressed to the point that fewer people were needed on the land. This allowed specialization and talented people could move into a wide range of disciplines from education to science to art. The progression of our culture balanced on the shoulders of the farmer who made food available to all and literally an afterthought to most.

But each year, at the critical time of harvest, farmers know that society depends on them. A failed harvest impacts the poorest people first but it causes rationing that affects everyone. Unforeseen circumstances could cause a famine that would lead to unraveling of the social structure and ultimately to forceful taking of the food that exists or expulsion of the weakest from a community. Any disruption of the normal chain of events, from planting to harvest, could have devastating consequences.

As we move into the mid-21st century, we have predictions of population growth to over 9 billion souls. Can the finite resources of our land feed this many people? What would a disruption or crop failure cause in our country or others around the globe? It is almost too chilling to imagine. Would we find ourselves back in the age of being hunter gatherers with massive starvation worldwide?

So, as the combines go to the fields and trucks haul endless loads to storage and ultimate use, remember the absolute requirement that the harvest must come in every year. That the trend line of prosperity and population only grows in accordance with a larger harvest. It would also be hoped that governments understand, and create policy based on the direct connection between production and consumption of food.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 9/30/2013

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