American agriculture is the story of unending small changes relentlessly boosting productivity. In 1960, an average acre of planted corn yielded 55 bushels; that’s now about 150 bushels. Behind the increase lie better seeds (including bio-tech seeds that combat corn borer and root worm — two threats to healthy corn), improved use of fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides, better planting techniques and advances in farm machinery.
Consider Carson’s tractor. It’s guided by GPS satellites. This makes for straighter and more productive rows. It also allows for the automatic adjustment of seed flow, depending on fields’ different soil types that have been programmed into the computerized controls. Sandier soils, says Carson, can’t handle higher seed rates. Seeds are saved; yields improve. And the Deere planter now puts in 24 rows of seeds simultaneously; that’s up from four or eight a few decades ago.
To cover costs and maximize use of expensive equipment, farmers need to cultivate more land. Encouraging consolidation, this has altered the farm belt’s sociology. Many farm families have left for Des Moines, Chicago and New York — but kept their farms and contracted with the remaining farmers to do the work. Perhaps half of Iowa’s acreage is leased by absentee owners, says Weih.
Could the present boom go bust? Well, yes. Agriculture is notoriously cyclical, and people here remember bitterly the 1970s and early 1980s. Initially, corn, wheat and soybean prices soared, pulling land values with them. Then, high interest rates in the early 1980s caused land prices to crash. Farmers couldn’t repay loans. Foreclosures multiplied. It was a human and economic calamity. There are eerie parallels between then and now. Farmers are vulnerable to a global economic downturn. But there are also crucial differences.
One is that farmers use less credit to buy land. “The lesson of the 1980s was that leverage (borrowing) is not a good thing,” says Weih. Lenders now require a 35 percent down payment, he says. With less debt, farmers are less vulnerable to repayment problems.