More Food, Fewer Farmers
Robert D. Atkinson’s piece “In Defense of Robots” (April 17) made me reflect on the great impact that advances in technology have had on my own field, agriculture. The labor requirements for crop production have been markedly reduced, and crop productivity greatly increased.
In the 1930s, some 30 percent of our population worked in agriculture. Now it is less than 2 percent. My family farmed cotton, corn, and hay, and had beef cattle and milk cows. According to Mississippi State University ag economists, in 1940, 145 hours of human labor were required to produce an acre of cotton with mules, hoes for weed control, and hand harvesting. This time was concentrated in about three months in spring to start and weed the crop and two months in autumn for harvest. A family could handle only ten to fifteen acres of cotton. Income was quite limited, although the typical farm family produced much of its food from a garden and some chickens and milk cows.
I worked in ag research in Ohio in the 1960s and pioneered the development of no-tillage, which cut down trips over the field. I came back to Mississippi and began working on no-tillage for cotton. With a system that had a trip to plant, two or three spray operations for weeds and insects, and machine harvest, we got the time required for an acre to just over one hour. That is a hundredfold decrease in human labor. During this time, the cotton yield has increased from a half bale to the acre to two bales. Corn yield as well has increased by a factor of five to ten. Ag research has also increased productivity and reduced labor requirements for other major crops, such as soybeans and wheat.
These advances in agriculture have markedly reduced the amount of disposable income required to feed ourselves. And if we wanted to eat cheap by soaking dry beans to cook and making cornbread and biscuits, as my mother did, we could decrease our outlay for food even more.
I expect to continue to see changes in the way we do things, and we will have to adapt to new methods.
SCOTUS on Secession
Kevin D. Williamson’s otherwise excellent article on Calexit states correctly that “there is no legal or constitutional process for a state’s separating from the Union” but fails to note that there was a Supreme Court decision to that effect, Texas v. White (1869). White involved the action of the rebel Confederate government of Texas using federal bonds to purchase military supplies for its war effort against the United States. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase ruled that this act had been illegal, along with others taken by the “seceded” states. According to this interpretation, the U.S. is a “perpetual,” “indissoluble,” and “indestructible” union. No subsequent Supreme Court decision or act of Congress has nullified this ruling. A Lincoln appointee, Chase vindicated all the anti-secession arguments made by Lincoln in his first inaugural address and in his message to Congress of July 1861.