In 1955 Tom and Peg Mayhill, publishers of a local newspaper in Knightstown, IN, decided to expand their business by publishing a farm-oriented newspaper. Sixty years later that newspaper is FarmWorld, one of the most successful weekly farm newspapers in the Midwest. During those 60 years, the foundation of what is now called modern agriculture was laid.
The decade of the 1950s saw the beginnings of a revolution in food production in the US. This included more work being done by machines. In 1950, it took 6 hours of labor to produce a bushel of wheat. By 1960, this had fallen to 5 hours. Today, it takes just 2 hrs. Between 1954 and 1964, there was a 28% decline in the number of farms, but only a 4% decline in the amount of land in farming. This was the period when farms started getting bigger and more specialized. In 1950, 12% of the US population was involved in farming, falling to 8% by 1960.
Improvements in seed, fertilizer, and farm equipment were both a result of and a driver of this change in farm life and productivity. Much of this change went unnoticed by consumers who were busy snapping up all the new convenience foods that were being produced as a result of new technology in food production and preparation. Federal farm policy was focused on managing commodity supplies and helping farmers implement new production technology. The 1960s was the beginning of the environmental movement, and the 1970s was the beginning of the consumer movement. These two forces are having a major impact on agriculture today.
The early editions of FarmWorld did not have stories about consumers’ mistrust of farmers or their production methods. Most people were only one generation removed from the farm, and most still had grandparents who were living on the family homestead. Farmers were not particularly concerned about what consumers thought about agriculture.
Today, however, it is a much different landscape. Consumer and environmental groups are targeting agriculture for criticism, the government is focused on regulating agriculture, and consumers have developed a growing interest in how food is produced. At the same time, farmers have new technology that increases their production, maximizes their efficiency, and provides them new markets from which to profit.
Unlike the 1950s when a farmer produced food for 15 people, today and in the future American agriculture will have to produce for hundreds of consumers worldwide. While consumers in the US are looking for locally produced products, consumers abroad want the high quality meat products produced with US grain.
The trends we see in agriculture today will shape the industry for the next 60 years. While technological innovation will be a key to the future just as it has been in the past, social, economic, and political forces will play a much bigger role in the next era of agriculture. Public opinion and government regulations will in large part determine in large what farmers grow, how they grow it, and the price consumers will have to pay. This is a concept unthinkable when the Mayhills started their farm newspaper.
By Gary Truitt