Technology and Structural Changes in Agriculture Since 1900

Otto Doering, Purdue University

 

We often rush ahead without the benefit of perspective on what we are doing. Perspective prepares us for thoughtful discussion rather than combative rhetoric. Even though history doesn’t often give us the right answer for our particular problem, it does teach us which are the right questions to ask. If we can ask the right questions we have overcome one of the biggest impediments to successful problem solving.

Concluding Observations

In the 20th Century we made amazing progress in productivity. We also started an effort to protect the natural resource and environmental base on which our agricultural productivity depends and tried to ensure equal access to information and markets.

On other fronts we continued dealing with critical issues that were passed on to us by those in the 19th Century. We still have a continuing concern with farm incomes. We still face the dilemma of the role of trade and external forces as they shape farm incomes and the prospects for our domestic producers.

We also continue the 19th Century concern for who controls agriculture. Who reaps what proportion of the rewards and benefits as we move from inputs, the provision of land, the provision of labor, and all the other contributors to the process that brings a final product to the consumer or industrial end user? We are less proactive about this for other sectors of the economy. There are reasons why agriculture is very different and has become more of a direct focus for national concern and intervention. We need to understand these as we think about upcoming farm legislation that should look forward rather than attempt to solve past problems as many of our farm bills have done.

As Howard Tolley looked back from the vantage point of the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture, he observed that good agricultural policy should:

  1. Encourage and assist farmers who produce goods for sale on a commercial scale;
  2. Assist those disadvantaged in agriculture; those suffering drought, subsistence farmers, and others at a disadvantage within agriculture itself;
  3. Undertake activities to encourage better land use (including conservation) and more efficient production.

Tolley’s conclusion in 1940 was that the policies of the New Deal had accomplished a certain amount helping commercial agriculture, but that more effort needed to be applied to the other goals. Our questions need to be:

What are the goals for our agricultural policy in the coming Century?

Where have we not done enough in the past? Where do we need to do more, and what is it we need to do in the future?

Are we sure we are looking forward and treating the causes and not symptoms of the problems we face?

 

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