Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fall Field Work

South Dakota produces $9.4 billion dollars worth of farm receipts spread across 31,800 farms in 2011. Just over half this amount is from livestock. Cattle make up about half of all livestock receipts. Other livestock such as sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens and horses make up the other half. Of field crops corn is the most important with forty percent of all corn going to ethanol production from 15 plants located mostly in eastern S.D which produces the most corn. These facilities produced over one billion gallons of ethanol last year.  (Statistics from S.D. Department of Agriculture)

All is not well in farm and ranch country despite the value of all crops. Farmers are an aging population. The average age for those whose principle occupation is farming is 60.2 years, which means that about half of all farmers are older than this. This aging population is not being replaced by a younger generation of farmers at the same rate at which farmers are leaving agriculture. From 1980 until 2011 the rural population of S.D. actually declined by 1,000 people while the urban population grew by 134,000.

The result is that there are fewer farms now than any time since Homesteading in the 19th Century, but those farms are also larger than any time in history. Used to be that a 120 acre farm could support a family of six people, but that is not possible today. With fewer farms and fewer people living in rural areas, the small towns across the state are shrinking, and in some cases disappearing all together. Rural institutions, such as schools, hospitals, police, and fire, are increasingly having to consolidate to serve a dwindling population. Should these trends continue some, such as Frank J. Popper, who teaches in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and his wife Deborah Popper have suggested that this state become a buffalo commons once again in their 1987 article, The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, published in Planning. While I doubt that will come to pass, there are other negative predictions that extreme depopulation can bring. The rural areas of the Great Plains may become a host to roaming bands of outlaws who are able to hide in the vast expanse of mostly empty land lacking any local law enforcement.

The agricultural land will continue to be farmed in this bleak, depopulated future. Already under construction in Fargo, N.D. are huge, powerful tractors that need no operator. They are computer controlled and can accurately run farm equipment in a field to an inch or less, and they can be moved anywhere following a pilot vehicle. Controlled from the Internet by their corporation to do all work from tillage to harvest, these machines now cost about one third as much as current manned tractors. These machines are still in developmental stages, but their widespread application can not be far in the future. Both declining farm population and economics favor their becoming common.

I'm not sure how many years we will have fall harvest scenes like those pictured above. Perhaps we are now seeing the end of an era in agriculture, and are about to enter a brave new world of computer driven farm machinery controlled from the corporate offices of large vertically integrated agricultural corporations which produce most all of our food and fiber. This is not good news about the quality of our food or the use of our land.


  1. Well, two things: Your commentary is fascinating to someone who knows little about what's happening in your great state; but it's also a bleak picture you paint, although I'm not sure there is a viable alternative.

    In my opinion, the loss of so many small farms over the past 50 years is a tragedy of cosmic proportions.

    Re your comment about voting: I'm a cynic and a historian/political scientist. Democracy in this country is on its way out. If you look up the word, fascism, you'll perhaps see how close we are to that kind of dictatorship where business leader and government leaders form a coalition to run things. Corporate lobbyists walk the aisles of Congress freely, handing out checks and bills they have written to the reps they own and who do their bidding.

    $500 million in hidden money from such groups as those entities run by the Koch Brothers has been spent in this election to defeat the sitting president. That's unprecedented and puts our democracy at risk. Who can fight such a thing.

    My hope is that if Obama wins we'll have a new Supreme Court justice who will help turn around the dastardly law that makes corporations "persons," and allows this kind of money to corrupt our entire system.

    Strangely enough, at least one of our so-called Founding Fathers warned against this very thing!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you, Jeff and Lowell, for your interesting report and comments. Fascinating to learn of remote controlled farm machinery!

  4. That was a lucid explanation of a frightening trend. In the Dakotas, perhaps it is good to replace human labor with technology, but across the country, the same trend could cause such massive unemployment that civil unrest would not be far behind.

  5. The autonomous tractor is a wave of the future, but I neglected to include an Internet reference about these machines. It is here:

    Need a more powerful tractor? Just gang several together.

  6. For a news report on this autonomous tractor see: