Growing Pains, continued

A Tale of Two Farms

Kevin Paap and his wife, Julie, are fourth-generation farmers on their land in Minnesota. As Paap says proudly, he drives down the same driveway as his great-grandfather did on his way to farm the same land.

When Paap’s great grandfather claimed his homestead back in 1899, he grew a variety of grains and vegetables, raised some cows, and had some chickens running around. He and his wife and kids cultivated some 160 acres, probably with the help of a rudimentary plow, some horses and other basic tools.

In a lot of ways, it’s a farm Sebastian Mbengue would recognize.

Mbengue farms the land in a small village in Senegal, the westernmost country in West Africa. He and his wife grow millet, mostly, one the first grains ever cultivated and one of the hardiest. Millet can practically grow out of sand dunes. That’s a good thing, because Senegal can be pretty dry at times.

They also keep up a mango grove and grow cassava and a brood of chickens. Last year, tomatoes fetched a good price at the market, so this year Mbengue, along with everyone else he knows, planted tons. But the price bottomed out, and you can’t make back the money needed to transport them to market. So he gave them away by the bucketfuls to his sons, daughters, sisters and friends living in the city.

In Mbengue’s part of Senegal, the rains typically start in July and keep on through September or October. His family has been farming in this village for at least as many generations as Paap’s in Minnesota, and he learned when to plant and how to judge from his father.

Mbengue doesn’t add much to his fields besides the rain and the seeds, weeding and plowing. He doesn’t irrigate, even though the land is dry, and he doesn’t use fertilizer or pesticides.

An agricultural advisor from the Israeli embassy once compared farming this way to gambling in a casino. Every year, Mbengue stakes his family’s livelihood—and, collectively with all the farmers, food for everyone to eat—on things entirely outside of his control. The rains could stop or there could be too much. There could be a pest infestation. The prices could drop.

Much of this is true everywhere. Paap doesn’t irrigate his fields, so he relies on the rain, though Minnesota typically gets more than Senegal. And he doesn’t set the prices for his crops, corn and soybeans any more than Mbengue does.

But there is a world of difference between Paap’s farm and the one Mbengue and his great-grandfather ran, or even from the farm Paap started a couple decades ago.

For one thing, Paap’s farm, which he and his wife run with the part-time help of their two college-age sons, is more than 500 acres, instead of 160. That’s thanks in no small part to sophisticated machinery, including a combine harvester. Invented in the 1800s, the first combines allowed farmers to cut stalks and separate grain in one pass.

Since then, they have become significantly more impressive. When Iowa farmer David Miller was growing up, combines could harvest 80 to 100 bushels an hour. Now, Miller says, there are combines that can harvest up to 4,000 bushels an hour, and a single farmer can do work that took 15 men even 30 years ago.

And the GPS on Paap’s tractor isn’t there to give directions. The tractor minutely tracks data on the yield across his 500-plus acres, storing the information for the following year. The tractor’s computer then helps him calculate how much fertilizer to apply the following season across his fields, based on the previous year’s yield. Where the yield was lower, the soil is probably a bit weaker, which means the yield will most likely be low again, and that means he needs less fertilizer in those spots.

So, with today’s technology, Paap can localize and put the fertilizer where it’s likely to do the most good.

There’s another technology that is even more finely-tuned, says Peter Scheffert, director of agricultural development and financial assistance for Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture. Using satellite imagery, Scheffert says “green-seeker” technology monitors the growing plants on the field. Rather than relying on last year’s harvest, this technology analyzes the color of the leaves to see where there’s a deficiency, and where the fertilizer might be needed right then.

Paap has also benefited from decades of seed improvement. His seeds have been bred and genetically modified to resist certain pests and to thrive in his soil environment. While his grandfather in the 1940s might have harvested an average of 50 to 100 bushels of corn per acre, and his father in the 1960s may have seen an average yield of up to 150 bushels an acre, Paap’s harvests reach an average of 170 to 200 bushels an acre.

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A Map of the Fields

If you put all the world’s pastures in one place, they would cover Africa.
Where do statistics like that come from? The Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, for one.

“We’re stepping back to look at the globe as a whole, which really isn’t done anywhere else,” says Jonathan Foley, IonE director and head of the initiative.

Scientists and researchers are using satellites, censuses and other data to map the world’s landscapes in a new way—looking at who is using which land for what, how many trees grow there, and how many bushels of wheat they harvest.

Then they take that data to figure out what it all means, with long-range observations and computer modeling. Foley calls it “future-casting."

“What if we do end up with 9 billion people who want to eat like Europeans and Americans? How much land would be required? How much productivity?”

At the same time, economists are working on ways to price out land use intangibles. Sure, Foley says, you can calculate corn profits by subtracting the costs to fertilize, plant and harvest from the market price. But what about the things we don’t put prices on?

“How much carbon is this ecosystem storing and what is that worth?” he asks. “What about biodiversity, what might that be worth?”

To find out, Foley says the GLI researchers are working closely with leaders in the industry, non-governmental and policy arenas. Makes sense, since these are the people who will take the GLI’s work and run with it. 

Perhaps the most fundamental question is, “How are we going to feed and fuel the world without wrecking the biosphere?” The answers aren’t just for academics.