Dream Reaper: The Story of an Old-fashioned Inventor in the High-Tech, High-Stakes World of Modern Agriculture
Another Turn of the Crank
The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma
Growing food was once the consuming professional interest of most Americans; 95 percent of the population, for instance, were farmers at the time of the Revolution. But that interest has long since become a specialty, even a subspecialty. Though farmers still accounted for a third of Americans as late as 1910, this proportion had dropped to one in ten by 1955, and since then, according to Victor Davis Hanson, not a month has passed in which the number of farms in this country has not fallen; by the 1980s, two thousand family farms a week were failing. Today not quite one American in a hundred engages in farming. It’s hard to know for sure—in 1993, the Census Bureau announced that farmers were no longer “statistically significant” and hence could not be counted.
Put aside, at least for a moment, the question of whether this decline is good or bad. One thing it undoubtedly means is that we know less about farming today than ever before—less about the practice of coaxing food from soil, and less about the economics that drives this most basic of industries. We’ve left the farm because certain technological advances have, in one view, freed us from this labor, or, in another light, made food so cheap that it is almost impossible for a family to make a living growing it.
Americans born since the war have spent their entire lives in a condition of food surplus, both domestically and, increasingly, abroad. There have been famines around the world in that time, it is true, and many people suffer from chronic malnutrition—but in general these have been the product of poor distribution, low incomes, and political turmoil. In any event, there’s been no reason for most Americans to pay attention to agriculture, and we haven’t. A federal farm bill providing for huge subsidies, for instance, worked its way through Congress this winter without attracting any interest from the press or the public. Farms hit the front page only when cows begin foaming at the mouth and passing on their symptoms to children, or when local droughts threaten to add a few cents to the price of this year’s bread and pasta.
That may change. The debate over Lester Brown’s forecasts of coming food shortages in China has already been joined in these pages. But his larger point, made most recently in the journal published by his World Watch Institute, is at least as important.1 Viewed as a whole, he points out, the planet’s grain harvest has barely increased in the last five years—a stunning change from the huge annual increases that accompanied the post- World War II green revolution. As a result, nearly half a billion more people have to share the same amount of corn and wheat and rice as was harvested in 1990, so the per capita consumption of calories has steadily decreased. Global stocks of grain stand at forty-nine days’ worth, and since the harvest rates of alternate sources of food such as fish have also leveled off, or are declining, the ancient challenge to early agricultural societies—making it to the next growing season—might eventually become a challenge to many societies today.
There are many reasons to expect this shortage. They include the tremendous momentum of population growth, as well as the increasing environmental trouble caused by salinized soils, depleted groundwater, and soil erosion. Erratic weather caused by global warming could add considerably to this burden. If Brown and others are even partially correct, the implications are large. Food prices should start to increase (and indeed corn and wheat prices on the Chicago exchanges have come close to reaching record levels this spring). This could in turn cause political instability in many places; the list of past revolutions in which the price of bread has had a part is a long one. We may well be entering a period when the roughly two thousand calories a day our bodies need will in many places not be automatically and cheaply available. Just as the oil crises of the 1970s concentrated our attention, albeit briefly, on the hitherto overlooked question of long-term energy supplies, so we may find that the question of the food supply will become more and more controversial. This may be a good time to consider some of the books about farming that have been published in recent months. Taken together, they can help us understand the past and possible future of the meals most Westerners take for granted.
In Dream Reaper, Craig Canine attempts to tell the story of a new invention developed only in the last decade—a different kind of combine that Mark Underwood, a Kansas farmer, was convinced would make his fortune. (The combine, which cuts, threshes, and winnows any type of grain, is among the most important pieces of machinery in modern farming.) The book recounts the high moments and the disappointments of Underwood’s quest—the late nights working to improve the design of his “Bi-Rotor”; the wedding reception in the construction shed; the great day when the machine passes its first test. It’s not Canine’s fault that his story peters out anticlimactically when the big tractor companies refuse either to buy the combine or to stop paying small sums to continue research on it. (And an epilogue is even more disappointing: when the machine finally gets a test against its competitors, it comes in second out of three. Since we’ve been assured repeatedly by the inventor that this is the greatest combine of all time, this doesn’t make for much of a finale.) In the end, though, the fizzled central drama doesn’t badly damage the book. The story of the Bi-Rotor combine takes up only half of Dream Reaper; the rest of the book explores the history of the mechanization of the American farm, offering an excellent account of the vast transformation this process has wrought over the last century and a half.
The sickle is as old as human settlements; the long-handled sickle, or scythe, dates to the ninth century AD. Using one of these tools, and with four or five extra helpers to bundle the grain into sheaves, a farmer could cover about three acres of good land a day. “That is about where things stood in the United States in 1831,” writes Canine, “the year Cyrus McCormick tested his first mechanical reaper.” Though McCormick’s machine was not the first of its kind, he had the entrepreneurial drive to dominate the “reaper wars” with other manufacturers that broke out across the Midwest in the 1840s and 1850s. The machinery became even more important with the outbreak of the Civil War, when the North needed an export crop to rival the cotton grown on the plantations of the Mississippi Delta and machinery to replace the soldiers fighting Lee. Under this pressure, McCormick and other manufacturers refined the “slave of the North,” adding to the reaping machine a seat that let the whole rig move faster than the pace of a walking man and binding machines that tied the sheaves mechanically as well.
The story was told at Deering & Company that the first farmer to buy a twine binder took it to his field, hitched his horses to it, climbed onto the seat, and said, “What am I to do?” A Deering mechanic who happened to be on hand replied, “Do? Do nothing. Drive the horses!” The farmer obeyed, making a circuit of the field. He looked behind him and saw a row of beautifully bound sheaves. Shouting with amazement, the man swore there must be a genie hidden in the machine.
Many other “genies” followed. Some were mechanical—Canine recounts the invention of the combine, which both reaped and threshed, and the coming of fossil-fuel-powered traction to the farm, first in the form of the Model T and then the tractor. Others were biological—his book contains wonderful photographs of the “Corn Gospel Trains” that spread the news of seed selection across the grainbelt, and the story of Henry Wallace and the hybrid corn he helped develop. Still others were chemical, such as the discovery of the standard pesticide 2,4-D as a byproduct of World War II work on defoliants. Perhaps the most powerful influence on the grain market was the development of uniform grading for crops, which made the futures markets possible.
With its careful history of science and organization transforming the American landscape, Dream Reaper is a great credit to the new Sloan Technology Series (which also underwrote Richard Rhodes’s recent book on the hydrogen bomb). But its author understands, so he notes in his first chapter, that every innovation comes with strings attached. As the inventor of the new combine, Mark Underwood enthusiastically promotes his new machine; he keeps talking about how its efficiency will make the products of farming cheaper. “A problem in logic lurked here,” writes Canine, the same quandary that “made modern agriculture simultaneously one of the greatest wonders and saddest tragedies of Western civilization.” He asks Underwood,
Isn’t the invention of more and more efficient machines, like yours, part of the reason why grain prices are so low, and why so many farmers have had to leave their farms? I mean, American agriculture is already plagued with overproduction. By making it even easier for farmers to produce more grain, won’t the Bi-Rotor just make a few more family farms unnecessary?
Underwood accepts the argument and has no answer to it; nor does he lay down his tools. “He furnished living proof that the wellsprings of innovation flow regardless of the consequences, and from no baser motive than the desire to create something new, and maybe even start a retirement account with the proceeds.”
The argument for cheap food may seem self-evident—much of the world has by now grown dependent on the availability of huge stocks of American wheat, for instance. But it would be too much to expect agreement from Victor Davis Hanson, who has seen his farm wrecked by many of the forces Canine describes. His account of that ruination is so detailed, so angry and funny, that it will surely find a lasting readership. If John Steinbeck showed what it felt like to be a migrant picker arriving in California’s pastures of plenty, Hanson defines with similar force what it feels like to be one of the small growers who, several generations later, find themselves just as helpless against the overpowering forces of the market.
He grew up on his grandfather’s raisin ranch in the Central Valley, and the particulars of the fruit he grows make his story a highly concentrated version of the tale farmers can tell across the nation. Raisins are a risky crop—they must lie on the ground next to the vines for several days after they are picked in order to shrivel and dry, and if it rains during that time they become worthless. But though this peculiarity (and the fact that they can be grown in only a few sunny valleys around the world) should make them pricy enough to reward the venturesome farmer, they have another characteristic: they can be easily stored by the middleman, for years if necessary, which means that their price is usually depressed while long-held stocks are released into the market.
See Vaclav Smil's review of Brown's recent book, Who Will Feed China?, in The New York Review, February 1, 1996, and Brown's article "Facing Food Scarcity," in World Watch (November-December 1995).↩
See Vaclav Smil’s review of Brown’s recent book, Who Will Feed China?, in The New York Review, February 1, 1996, and Brown’s article “Facing Food Scarcity,” in World Watch (November-December 1995).↩