Things Down on the Farm Ain’t What They Used to Be.
There’s an old song we used to sing when I was a kid growing up during the 1940s in the rural farming valley near Grace, Idaho. ” The Old Grey Mare She Ain’t What She Used to Be,” the lyrics of which went something like: The old grey mare she ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be; ain’t what she used to be; The old grey mare she ain’t what she used to be, many long years ago. (In the version we used to sing, the words got a bit more colorful, but I’ll not elaborate here.) 🙂 Today’s farms ain’t what they used to be, either. The last few years I was in Idaho, I went to the Ag Expo held at Holt Arena on the Idaho State University campus. Each year I attended these expos, it seemed the size of the machinery continued to expand.
As I walked around the arena and looked at all this modern equipment, I contemplated the so-called advances over the past fifty years, and what it means to the future of agriculture and the family farm. Along with the increased size and technology, comes an increase in price. The last expo I attended was in the early years of this century, probably around 2005 or 2006. I was told that one particular grain harvester on display carried a price tag of $277,000. There was also a tractor on display that I would guess equaled the price of the harvester or may have even exceeded it.
I don’t know how today’s family farm can afford such machinery. I wonder how long it will be before the traditional family farm gives way completely to large corporate conglomerates, and the machinery manufacturers will actually be the ones doing the farming. I remember a farmer neighbor remarking to me that there was a time when he needed a new tractor he would sell four or five loads of grain and go pay cash for the tractor. “Now days,” he said, “It takes the whole crop for two or three years running to pay for a new tractor.”
I’ve been out of the business since 1990. The last combine I purchased was in 1978, and if memory serves me, the price for that machine was around $48,000. It was the same basic design and concept as one at the latest Ag show I attended, and was made by the same company, albeit my older combine was somewhat smaller than 2005 model. However, it was one of the larger models for the time. For a bit of perspective, the farm price for wheat in 1978 varied between $4.50 and $5.00 per bushel. In terms of bushels of wheat, that 1978 combine cost the farmer approximately 10,000 bushels of his wheat crop.
At the time of my 2005 visit to the Ag show, wheat hovered around $6.00 to $7.00 a bushel depending on the variety and grade, which meant at that time, a combine cost the farmer nearly 43,000 bushels of his wheat for basically the same machine. This was equal in price to four of the 1978 model combines. I very much doubt this newer model would do the work of four of the older models. There is something wrong with this picture. Things ain’t the same down on the farm.
I suspect a major contributor to this increased cost is all the high tech stuff. Although it’s nice, I question whether it’s really necessary. With modern GPS technology, I’m told the operator doesn’t even have to steer the tractor or combine down the field anymore. It’s more like flying an airplane; program your course into the computer, and sit back and let the computer do the driving. Application of seeds, fertilizer, and other chemicals are now computerized. Throttle control of the tractor is even electronic; no more direct linkage between throttle lever and the injection pump. Transmissions are shifted electronically.
Something else I noticed at that year’s expo, was the increased size and weight of the tillage equipment. Producers are caught up in a sort of “catch 22.” With the advent of larger more powerful—and heavier—tractors, which adds to ground compaction, larger and heavier tillage tools became necessary. During my high school days, and the early years of my career, we always figured that fall tillage to a depth of around 12to 14 inches was sufficient for allowing the winter snow moisture to penetrate into the deeper depths of the soil. We were able to accomplish this with a standard chisel plow, or a moldboard plow.
Now the standard deep tillage tool seems to be a ripper with the capabilities of reaching depths of 18 to 24 inches. These depths are necessary because of the tremendous compaction caused by the heavier equipment.
Time marches on; carrying with it, what I suppose, is progress. I’ve been out of the business a few years, but every once in awhile, I can’t help reminiscing about sitting out on the open tractor listening to the purr of the engine under load; smelling the fresh tilled soil and feeling the bright morning sun beating down on my shoulders; remembering the squawk of the seagulls as they fought over the mice and bugs turned up by the tillage equipment; and remembering the machinery that I had on the place was fully paid for—an experience the young farmers coming on the scene today may never be able to enjoy. No, folks, things down on the farm sure ain’t what they used to be, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
If you’re a reader who likes to jump back into the past and dredge up memories of years gone by, perhaps you’d enjoy reading my little book of tales entitled Buddy…His Trials and Treasures. It’s about a young boy growing up in rural America during the 1940s. A time of 5 cent ice cream cones, nickel Hershey bars, and 10 cent movie tickets for kids. If you go to upper right on this homepage, you can click the “free download” button and immediately receive a free copy of the prologue and first three complete adventures of the book. Enjoy.
P.S. Coming in December is a series on Christmas in the 1940s and ’50s. Be sure to stay tuned.