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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lexington: #Farming as rocket science | The Economist

Why American agriculture is different from the European variety

Farming as rocket science


BEFORE growing up to become farmers, a startling number of America’s rural kids are taught how to build rockets. Every year rural skies fill with mini-missiles built by children. The largest fly hundreds of feet, carrying altimeters, parachutes and payloads of eggs. Baseball diamonds are popular launch sites, as are alfalfa fields: the latter tend to be large and, compared with other crops, alfalfa tolerates a fair bit of trampling. All this tinkering and swooshing explains a lot about American farms.
One youth organisation lies behind many thousands of rural rocket launches: the 4-H club (it’s an acronym, derived from a pledge involving head, heart, hands and health). Among city slickers, 4-H is not well known. Yet its existence and its history reveal a great deal about America’s distinctive views of farming and food. For many, the name conjures up a single image: a farmer’s child at a country fair, clad in best blue jeans and cowboy boots, gravely leading livestock round a show-ring. Lots of club members do rear and show animals, it is true: one of the sights of an American summer is watching an 11-year-old at a state fair, guiding a half-tonne steer past 4-H judges.
But 4-H was born to spread hard science as well as to shape character. Some 2m children attend the group’s clubs and camps, while millions more follow 4-H programmes in schools. A big push is under way to reach more urban children, with schemes such as classroom egg incubators so that eight-year-olds learn that “chicken doesn’t come from McDonald’s”. In farm states such as Nebraska, the organisation reaches one child in three. 4-H clubs and camps form the youth wing of a partnership between government and public universities financed by gifts of federal land, dating back to the civil war and set up to transmit new technologies into every county in the union.
Visiting the Nebraska State Fair recently, Lexington toured a pavilion of 4-H projects. Some entries might be found at fairs in many countries: jars of jam, prize-winning vegetables and woodwork (your columnist frankly coveted a Perspex-fronted squirrel-feeding maze). But there was a striking emphasis on science and business, too. Alongside long shelves of model rockets, entries included a display on pig-eye dissection and a statistical analysis of poultry diseases. Eleven-year-old Cale Urmacher, a fourth-generation 4-H member, gave a robotics demonstration. Becca Laub, 16, outlined her plans for a tomato- and fish-farming enterprise and her ambitions to study engineering. People think farmers are uneducated, she scoffed. Her father has an economics degree and uses it to track market trends. Also, thanks to global-positioning gadgetry, one of the family tractors can drive itself, which is “pretty cool”.
Rivals in other lands have sniffy theories about why America, a rich country, is so good at producing cheap food. They paint American farmers as pawns of giant agri-corporations, bullied by market forces to produce genetically modified Frankenfoods. Lexington has not forgotten the face pulled by a French agriculture minister, interviewed during a previous posting to Europe, as he mocked America’s “aseptic” farm produce.
Foreign rivals are right about the power of market forces in America, but wrong to see its farmers as passive victims. Americans have thought differently about agriculture for a long time—and not by accident. Settled in a rush of migration, peaking in the 1880s, Nebraska’s prairies were parcelled out to German, Czech, Danish, Swedish and even Luxemburgish pioneers. From the start the plan was to convert Old World homesteaders to the scientific ways of the New World. As the system developed, Congress sent county agents from universities to teach menfolk modern farming and their wives such skills as tomato-canning. In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. Older folk resisted such newfangled ideas as planting hybrid corn bought from merchants rather than seedcorn from their own harvests. Enter the 4-H movement, which gave youngsters hybrid seeds to plant, then waited for the shock as children’s corn outgrew their parents’. Later youngsters promoted such innovations as computers.
Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska’s state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans “treated food as commodities”.
Be outstanding in your field
Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.
Nebraska, a big beef and corn producer, feels bullish in more ways than one. There is much talk of China’s meat-craving middle class and a fast-growing global population. Last year farming graduates at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln could pick from multiple job offers. America is “completely set up” to supply soaring world demand—as long as it can keep using GM crops and other technology, says Will Miller, a UNL student who reared enough heifers as a 4-H member to pay his way through college. Not all young farmers are as biotech-keen. 4-H offers organic projects, too (deftly treading a path through the culture wars that dog so many fields in America, including science). But many are just as enterprising. America set out to plant science and capitalism in its farm kids. They have taken deep root.
From the print edition: United States

Lexington: Farming as rocket science | The Economist

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