I just finished reading A Revolution Down on the Farm, by Paul K. Conkin.
I wanted to read a book about farming to answer two of my questions. How is it that so few farms feed so many people (not necessary what techniques they use, but also how that came to be)? And, does the government pay for farmers to not use their land?
The first chapter of the book was the hardest to get through. An immediate lesson on all farming equipment and the history of such. It was tedious and didn't feel very important to the overall story. How the sickle was used doesn't much matter when the book covers mainly from the 1930's to present age. Once the first chapter was through, the rest of the book was mainly enjoyable. Conkin talks about his own farming experience, and then discusses how the the farm has changed from the 1930's, and how the Federal Government's policies have caused those changes.
In the end, the massive technological changes of the Industrial Age caught up to the farm, and in 1950-70 the production skyrocketed. For example, in 1900 an acre of land would yield 25 bushels of of corn. This had grown to 40 bushels in 1950. In the next 50 years, it would grow to 120 bushels per acre. Wheat went from 19 bushels to 36. Cotton yields doubled.
Even more incredible was the amount labor was reduced. For corn, in 1900, it took a staggering 147 hours of labor for 100 bushels. In 1990, it only took 3 hours. Wheat went fro 147 hour for 100 bushels to 6. For cotton, a crop that required delicate picking and stringing out of the fibers, it went from 248 hours per bale to 5.
These gains, both in a reduction of labor and increase in productivity, are incredible. It changed the entire agriculture industry, and allowed just a few people to create a massive amount of product. So yes, 20% of farms (You can argue 10%) do produce 80% of the food.
With such massive gains in farming, overproduction is a huge issue. The current Federal Government's policies are complicated and in depth. The massive Department of Agriculture (105,778 employees as of June 2007) does the managing of this incredibly complicated field. And yes, some of their policies involve subsidizing farms for land purposefully unused. But the policies are much more complicated, and differ depending on how much a farm produces, how much land it has, and how it's used.
One thing is for sure, I won't be going into farming soon. The barrier to entry is huge (land, massive investment in equipment), and most farms are unprofitable. With many concerns over pesticide, herbicide, and animal treatment the industry has to balance economic needs with social needs.
But I do have a greater appreciation for FarmLogs!