clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


What started out with a wooden hoe and a few packets of seeds has grown into one of this country's - and the world's - largest commercial industries.

"Agriculture is our most basic industry and always has been," says Ken Ashby, Delta farmer and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. "As population has become more concentrated in urban areas, we don't see it in the same perspective, but it is still the driving force in rural areas."Agriculture touches our lives every day.

"We all like to eat three meals a day," says Miles "Cap" Ferry, Utah Commissioner of Agriculture. "We can get along without lots of things, but not food."

March 15-21 has been designated National Agriculture Week, a time to recognize the role that the food and fiber industry (and the 20 million people who work in it) has in our world.

It's a good time, says Ferry, to be aware of and appreciate the American farmer and what he does.

"Our farmers have become so productive that we not only feed ourselves, but help the rest of the world as well. Americans pay a lower percentage of their income for food than anywhere in the world. And our food supply is the safest of anywhere in the world."

Taken as a whole, he says, agri-business, which includes not only the producers but grocery stores, restaurants, suppliers and other related areas, is the state's largest industry.

More than 20 million Americans work in this industry nationwide. Approximately 90 percent of the jobs these days are off the farm. But the farm is still the basis for it all.

The plight of the American farmer came to national attention in recent years.

"In general," says Ashby, "we're in better shape than we were in the mid-'80s. The outlook appears brighter, especially if we can get to trading worldwide. That's our biggest challenge and opportunity."

That's not to say it is ever easy. "As they say, prices are cyclical - they start out bad and get worse."

But, says Ashby, if you're in it very long, you tend to look beyond farming as just a way to make a living to the unique lifestyle that it provides. It's a good way of life, he says, a good way to raise children. "They have a lot of freedom that they miss in the city."


(Additional information)

History of Agriculture

Some important dates in the history of agriculture:

1793: The cotton gin was invented.

1834: The McCormick reaper was patented, which reduced the workload of farmers harvesting grains.

1837: John Deere and Leonard Andrus began manufacturing steel plows. A practical threshing machine was invented.

1849-1926: Luther Burbank became a leading force in the development of plant breeding as an modern science. He developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants.

1860: There were 2 million farms in the U.S. - about as many as there are today.

1860-1943: George Washington Carver, the son of a slave, dedicated his life to improving Southern agriculture. His worked resulted in the development of more than 300 products from peanuts and 100 from sweet potatoes.

1862: President Lincoln signed the act authorizing a U.S. Department of Agriculture. It became a cabinet-level post in 1889.

1862: Passage of the Homestead Ace encouraged development of the West. The Morrill Land Grant College Act was passed.

1862-75: American agriculture switched from handpower to horses.

1887: The Hatch Experiment Station Act was signed. It provided federal grants for agricultural experimentation and a cooperative bond between USDA and the nation's land grant colleges.

1935: Congress declared soil erosion a national menace and directed USDA to establish the Soil Conservation Service. The Rural Electrification Administration was established.

1959: Legislation was approved authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to carry out a food stamp program.

1960: Productivity gains and mechanization in American agriculture reduced the number of gainfully employed farmers by half in a 20-year period, during which farm output increased by more than 50 percent.

1970: Normal Borlaug, American agricultural scientist and plant pathologist, won the Nobel Peace Prize for the development of semi-dwarf wheats that dramatically increased crop yields. He was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Green Revolution, the agricultural technological advances that promised to alleviate world hunger.

1981: U.S. agricultural exports reached a peak of $43.8 billion for the year. Their subsequent decline helped touch off a farm financial crisis in the early and mid-1980s due to lower prices and high farm debt.

1986: Agricultural scientists reported that by the 1990s, they may be routinely putting blocks of genes into plants so crops can better handle drought or salty soils.

1987: Farmland values bottomed out after a six-year decline, signaling a turn-around in the farm economy.

Facts about our food

A few facts about U.S. agriculture:

Agriculture and the food and fiber system:

- Represents 16 percent of out nation's GNP.

- Provides one out of every six jobs.

- Generates an estimated 21 million jobs, about 17 percent of the entire U.S. work force, with almost 90 percent of those jobs off the farm.

Food and food production:

- One American farmer/rancher provides for 128 people: 94 in the U.S. and 34 abroad.

- The percent of income spent on food: USA - 10 percent; France - 16 percent; Japan - 18 percent; USSR - 28 percent; Thailand - 29 percent; Mexico - 32 percent; China - 48 percent; India - 53 percent.

- The U.S. agriculture labor force represents .3 percent of the world's agricultural labor force, yet it produces 11 percent of the world's food grains, 15 percent of the world's feed grains, 25 percent of the world's beef and 11 percent of the world's pork.

Agricultural exports:

- The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of agricultural products.

- In 1990, the U.S. exported $40.2 billion dollars worth of farm products.

- Every dollar in agricultural exports generates another $1.59 in economic activities, such as transportation, financing, warehousing and production.

- In 1990, top markets included Japan, the European Community, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, the USSR, Taiwan, Egypt, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

- Less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland is foreign-owned, and most of that is timberland.

Life on the farm:

- Less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on farms today; in 1920 it was 30 percent, and when the Constitution was signed it was 90 percent.

- The average farm is 463 acres, with assets of $373,700 and debut of about $70,500.

- 53.9 percent of U.S. farmers work second jobs off the farm.

Environment and food safety:

- 31 different laws authorize 12 federal agencies to spend an estimated $1.4 billion annually to support food and agricultural safety and quality inspections.

- The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service examined more than 125 million meat animals (lamb, pork and beef) and 6.3 million birds (poultry) in 1990.

- To develop a new crop protection chemical, researchers need between five and 10 years and close to $50 million - most of which is spent on testing for safety.

Quotable quotes

Because agriculture has been the foundation of our country, a lot has been said and written about it. Here's a collection of some quotable quotes:

- Let the farmer forevermore be honored in his calling, for they who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God. - Thomas Jefferson

- The farmers are the founders of civilization and prosperity. - Daniel Webster.

- No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. - Booker T. Washington

- Drop a grain of California gold into the ground, and there it will lie unchanged until the end of time . . . drop a grain of our blessed gold into the ground and lo! a mystery. - Edward Everett (the reference is to wheat)

- Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together. - Jonathan Swift

- Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

- The farmer is the only man in our economy who buy everything he buys at retail, sells everything he sells at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways. John F. Kennedy

- Family farm agriculture has withstood the test of time and competition. It has made this country the envy of the world and American farm production the greatest miracle in the history of mankind. - Orville Freeman