The author, a farmer from Syracuse, Nebraska, is a past president of the American Soybean Association and a board member of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation.
Everyone’s talking about the historic drought in California and how much water the farmers there need. Deep concern is understandable; they grow a large share of our country’s food supply.
Here in eastern Nebraska, part of the traditional U.S. breadbasket, we have the opposite problem. It started raining at the beginning of May and only now have the storm clouds finally let up.
People have been trying to predict the weather for a long time, but it’s still an imperfect science. The same fields on my land that were too dry last year have been too wet, and my soybeans this year had to be planted a month late as a result.
In both years, I didn’t really know what the outlook would be. At this point, we have already received our yearly precipitation, including autumn rain and winter snow.
Crops in soggy fields like mine tend to grow more slowly. And if your fields see a lot of rain, they aren’t seeing as much sunshine, which will set them even further behind schedule. But what makes it more difficult is that, because we were too worried about our own drought of the past few years, we planted varieties that can adapt to dry conditions, not wet.
That being said, we can probably prepare for and handle wet weather more easily. If you can squeeze in your field work to get the seeds in the ground, you’re going to have a crop as long as you have rain — unless they drown from too much water, of course. But since we don’t have irrigation, there isn’t much I can do about long stretches of dry weather. So we use varieties that tolerate a lack of water, work the fields, and then hope for the best.
However, the agriculture sector needs more than hope to keep American fields producing.
After decades of growth, U.S. farm productivity has stalled out over the past 10 years. We don’t have to look further than the amount of research our government funds to understand why. Innovation — driven by science — is key to sustaining the sector’s health and vitality, and yet public agricultural research spending peaked in 1994 and since has declined by more than 20 percent.
Federal funding for research that would improve my crops is just not a priority in Washington today. The 2008 Farm Bill, for example, authorized a new program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could provide up to $700 million annually for research grants open to scientists from any research institution. And yet funding for the program, called the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), has never even reached half that amount.
The following year, in 2009, the U.S. economic stimulus package provided billions of dollars for research in other fields, but the agricultural and food sciences were left out completely.
Not every country places such a low value on agricultural research. Between 2000 and 2008, China doubled its agricultural R&D budget, investing more in its farmers and food producers than any other country. In 2009, China spent almost one-third more on food and agricultural research than the United States.
Here in Nebraska, we could use more science to improve the growing season forecasts. We could also use hardier plants that produce higher yields, along with new ways to improve how we farm.
I’m a third-generation farmer, proud to work the same fields that my father and grandfather did, but if I want to increase how much my crops produce, I need to do so conserving our natural resources while lowering inputs like fertilizer and continuing to make do without irrigation. The amount of weather that I have to handle, on the other hand, remains about the same.
It’s time for our country to prioritize the work of farmers and invest in the science that helps us do our jobs. If we can figure out how to send a satellite to Pluto, we should be able to figure out how to get U.S. agriculture to start growing again.