Across Iowa's corn country, huge machines with anteater snouts gulp the ears off 8-ft.-high cornstalks, an instant later spit golden kernels into self-contained bins. In California, packing machines out in the fields seal freshly picked lettuce heads in plastic, drop them into cardboard boxes, then dis gorge the boxes ready for market. On farms in the Southwest, machines work the fields with surgical precision, injecting minuscule broccoli seeds one by one into the soil at measured intervals.
And on even the rockiest farmland, plows dig freely across the fields, the threat of grinding halts eliminated by hydraulic systems that deftly trip the blades over hidden stumps and stones.
The U.S. farmer now makes up only 7% of the nation's labor force, but he has more than compensated for his dwindling numbers. Advances in crop biology, fertilizers and the like have helped. But, in basic terms, it is the powerful, ingenious array of new machinery (see color pages) that has enabled the American farmer to harvest an un dreamed-of abundance.
An hour of farm labor produces more than six times as much as it did in 1920. Per-acre crop production is up by 80%. Output per breeding animal has doubled. In the 1960s alone, productivity of the average farm worker has increased by 6% a year v. only 3% for other workers. Total farm production, the Agriculture Department estimated last week, will set a new record this year (one result being lower grain prices on the nation's commodities market). With the average farm laborer producing enough food and fiber for 39 people, the American farmer not only overfeeds and overclothes the U.S. but holds out the vision that expanding technology can eliminate the threat of famine in underdeveloped lands as well.
Bumper Crop. The nation's 3,200,000 farms make up its No. 1 industry, with assets totaling $273 billion, a $20 billion chunk of it tied up in machinery so costly that, as Federal Reserve Bank Agricultural Economist Roby Sloan notes, "those without the managerial capacities, or who couldn't get financing, have had to move off the farm." As more marginal, hardscrabble farmers give up and flock to the cities, the spreads that remain are getting bigger. The average farm, just 175 acres back in 1940, now covers 359 acres, and will probably grow to 600 acres by 1980. To make a profit, says Ken Bush, 34, a Milan, 111., farmer with $80,000 worth of gear, "you have to have the volume. To have volume you have to have large acreage. To have the acreage, you have to have the machinery."
The machines that make the modern farm hum range from manure spreaders that cost $600 to 13-ton tractors selling for $36,000. Three-fourths of all farms now have at least one tractor, and some have a dozen or more; back in 1952 there were tractors on only 47% of all U.S. farms. While the tractor remains the mainstaysome 5,000,000 are in use on today's farmsthe agricultural arsenal also includes 880,000 grain combines, 775,000 hay balers, 655,000 corn pickers and shelters. Virtually all of the nation's wheat, corn and sugar beets are now harvested by machine. So are most soybeans, oats, cotton and hay.