Retired Vice President
Product and Process Technology
Grain Processing Corporation
When I was growing up in north-central Illinois, I watched corn and soybeans being brought to my little rural community's grain elevators in wagons pulled by tractors and sometimes even horses. Talk of 50 bushels per acre of corn was big news as we scrambled to pick up spilled soybeans to arm our peashooters. It was nearly halfway through the 20th century then, and U.S. corn production, the benchmark crop, averaged less than 30 bushels per acre, only slightly higher than at the turn of the century. Over four people resided on and operated an average-sized, 160-acre farm. Farms now average more than twice that size and are commonly operated by only one person.
The big growth in crop yields occurred after the Second World War, increasing more than five-fold through new agricultural practices and hybrid development. Productivity, however, increased by more than 50-fold over the course of the 20th century, due for the most part to mechanization. It is this fantastic productivity that keeps agricultural crops abundantly available at affordable prices as a raw material for industrial products as well as for foodstuffs. Mechanization has made the United States the "breadbasket of the world," and, more than that, it provides the springboard for sustainability on the planet.
My own career encompasses utilizing agricultural crops in the commodity grain-processing industry, an industry that converts oilseeds and grains into millions of pounds per day of foodstuffs, sweeteners, fuels, chemicals, building products, paper adjuvants, and even plastics. This huge industry is but a segment of the broader agricultural commodities industry. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, and the magazines we read all depend on agricultural crops. They have experienced the least cost inflation of most commodities and a stable supply because of the ingenuity and inventiveness of mechanical and agricultural engineers. Together, the invention and development of implements to plant, cultivate, harvest, and transport agricultural crops efficiently and regardless of unfavorable weather conditions are truly a wondrous and critical achievement.
This fascinating story will continue to unfold throughout the 21st century as we more completely embrace the concept of "sustainability." Fuels, chemicals, and materials will of necessity have to be derived from renewable resources. New crops, new agricultural practices, and new mechanical devices will have to be developed to sustain feeding, clothing, housing, and the quality of life of the growing world population.