A hard change is gonna come

tractor stirring up dust in a field

Sometimes the gap between what’s real and not real is so narrow that it’s impossible to tell truth from fantasy.

For example, recently the front page of a newspaper I receive featured two stories that make perfect sense to almost every farmer and little sense to almost everyone who doesn’t farm.

The first laid out current Land Grant University research that farmers can tap in their “quest for 300” bushels-an-acre corn yield.

The second related that California’s recent adoption of Proposition 12 — the voter-endorsed law that requires minimum growing space for “egg-laying hens, veal calves and breeding pigs” — is “far and away (the) top priority” of the state’s pork group.

Both are typical front-page fare for any ag-centered newspaper. What was missing in each story for any non-farming reader, however, was the proverbial “why?”

Why, for example, invest in costly public research for a land-punishing effort to grow 300 bu. per acre corn, or about 126 bu. more than the estimated 2023 national average yield when, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15% of this year’s crop will go unsold?

And, too, why strive to grow more corn per acre when 35% of today’s subsidized crop goes into ethanol, an alternative fuel deeply dependent on government mandates and under increasing assault by electric vehicles?

Similar questions arise about the pork group’s “top priority,” California voters who have said three times they want their eggs, pork and veal born and raised without the use of animal-confining cages and crates. Why are 40 million customers wrong and the ever-thinning ranks of the pork industry right?

Even more worrisome than these debatable ag issues is the reality that everyone needs to consider for anyone to even talk about corn yields or pork markets now or a generation from now: today’s radically changing environment.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New Yorker, starts that discussion in her 2021 book, “Under a White Sky,” by noting where the Bible starts it: “That man should have dominion ‘over all the earth and every creeping thing’” has, she suggests, become “a prophecy that has hardened into fact.”

Facts like how mankind has “(T)ransformed more than half the ice-free land on earth–some 27 million square miles,” “dammed or diverted most of the world’s major rivers,” and “our fertilizer plants and legume crops fix more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined … ”

Meanwhile, “ … today people outweigh wild mammals by a ratio of more than 8 to 1” and if you “(a)dd in “the weight of our domesticated animals — mostly cows and pigs … — that ratio climbs to 22 to 1.”

Those dark facts (she lists more) suggest that what we have “blandly labeled ‘global change’” actually points to “only a handful of comparable examples in earth’s history” as life-changing as what we have done now; “the most recent being the asteroid impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.”

Too bleak? Hold on, Kolbert isn’t finished.

Our only earth’s present state is so off-the-charts, she writes, that “Humans are producing no-analog” — no comparable  “climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future.”

After setting that cheerless scene, most of the book explains current ideas to — as her subtitle suggests — alter “The Nature of the Future” now that we’ve changed the future of nature.

All the forward-leaning research and in-the-field efforts that Kolbert outlines highlight just how much we must alter the alterations we’ve already made to nature in order for nature to have any future.

If that sounds too woo-woo and wonky to make much sense, welcome to a world where August 2023 became the hottest month ever in history by breaking the previous record set in July 2023.

None of this is new; we see it in our fields and barns and feel it in our bones. Change is here and even harder change is coming.

The really hard part will be to change with it; in short, to stop telling the market what we will produce and start listening to the market for what it needs us to produce.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com



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