Putting Things Into Perspective
This post is a shortened version of a piece I wrote for IDAHO magazine five or six years ago. The gist of that story was putting things in perspective. It takes us back to the year 1948. Dad had gone out on a limb and committed himself to two projects. The first was to build Mom her dream home; the second was to build a 4000 sq. foot steel machine shed to house his farm equipment.
His rotation practice for the farm was to summer fallow one-half the land each year, and plant the remaining half to crops. Most other dry farmers used a one-third out, two-thirds in, rotation. For you folks who are not familiar with farm terminology, summer fallow means leaving the land lay rest one year to gather extra moisture and nutrients for the next crop.
Because he had stretched himself financially that year, Dad decided to plant the whole farm, which at that time consisted of 1500 acres. Keep in mind that 1500 acres in 1948, given the smaller machinery, was a big acreage. The average self-propelled combine of that era could harvest, on a good day, 20-25 acres—if there were no breakdowns. A day without a breakdown was a rarity. A combine of today can harvest on average between 100—150 acres per day, and a major breakdown is a rarity.
Dad owned two combines, which, if you put the math to it, meant a 30 day harvest run that year at best. And given the nearly six thousand foot elevatiom of that country where precarious weather could develop anytime after the middle of September, he was taking a big risk trying to harvest that many acres with two combines. Consequently, he decided to hire some machines to help with the harvest. With his two combines, four from a Texas harvest brigade, and two from his younger brother, he now had eight machines with which to gather his crop. It’s at this point I want to try to illustrate the perspective I mentioned at the beginning. To add impact, I’m going to use commodities instead of dollars for comparison.
Barley at the market place in 1948 was bringing between $1.00 and $1.25 per bushel. At a dollar a bushel, the total cost of all eight of those combines that could harvest an aggregate of approximately 160 acres in a day, was 26,000 bushels of barley. At the original time this story was written, (2008) barley prices hovered around $2.75 per bushel–give or take a few cents. This would bring the cost of a new 2008 combine that harvests 150 acres in a day, to around 72,727 bushels of barley. This means a farmer, in today’s world, has to produce nearly three times as many bushels of barley to purchase one machine capable of harvesting the same number of acres in a day as did those eight combines in 1948. This is to say nothing of the cost of today’s trucks to haul it away. Something appears to be a bit askew here. It’s the old “catch-22” at play. In order to keep the cash flow of the farm at parity with input costs, farmers had to increase production. Increased production created an increase in supply, but demand remained the same causing the value of the farm commodities to decline; thus putting the farmer in a cost-price squeeze.
Total daily fuel cost for all eight of those 1948 combines harvesting 160 acres, was 50 bushels of barley, give or take a few bushels. Daily fuel cost of a modern machine harvesting the same number of acres, five years ago, was around 91 bushels of barley. Total daily labor costs for those eight (1948) combines were probably 120 bushels of barley. Daily labor cost for one of today’s machines is closer to 45 bushels. Labor wise, the modern machine is more efficient. There are those who would say the increased yields of today balance out these differences. While yields have increased somewhat over the past years, the value of that increased production hasn’t increased anywhere near in proportion to the input costs to raise those crops.
I won’t get into the other input costs of today’s farms vs. those of 1948, but I can tell you they were much less in those days. Dad used little or no fertilizer. Soil, in some ways is not unlike humans; it can become addicted. Where in those days, a 40 bushel per acre yield without fertilizer was not uncommon, trying to raise a crop today without the aid of fertilizer, yields would probably average 20 to zero bushels per acre. The soil has become addicted to the fertilizer the same as humans become addicted to tobacco, or heroine, or alcohol.
Nor were weeds as big a problem then as they are now. Therefore, little chemical weed control input was needed. The argument used today is that farmers are paid huge subsidies to offset these costs. That’s a topic for a whole ‘nuther post, which I may address at a later time Although my farming experience dealt only with the production of small grains, I’m certain the same perspective applies to other crops as well.
The conclusion to this story is, Dad did get his crop harvested that year, and as I remember, his gamble paid off. He gathered a respectable crop, averaging around 40 bushels per acre. I remember him saying that he was able to pay off the family’s new home and his machine shed that same year, with enough money left over to pay living and operating expenses for the next year. He even bought Mom a new Packard automobile (he still preferred driving his black Ford pickup) and paid cash for it as well, all without a government subsidy payment. Times have changed in the farming business over the years. Some of it h as been good; some not so good.
Now I’d like to take you on a journey a little further back in time and talk about my new Western novel, LouIss—Iron Dove Of The Frontier. She is a remarkable lady, one I’m sure you will like. Why not skip up to the top of this page and click on the “Books” link and read more about her, and even read a few excerpts from the book. It became available for purchase at amazon.com December 15th. Kindle version is coming a little later.
P.S. I think if you double click on the combine picture above, it will enlarge to where I’m seen a little clearer. The photo is old and I seem to have faded out. 🙂