Jay Lehr
Jay Lehr

OXFORD JUNCTION, Iowa — While this is the “golden age” of agriculture, there still are some problems in the industry.

“This is the ‘golden age’ of agriculture, so you can look forward to a career better than you ever dreamed,” said Jay Lehr, science director for the Heartland Institute. “I’ve been involved in agriculture for over a half a century, and this is a time for us to look forward to an economically successful career in feeding our state, nation and the world.”

However, Lehr noted during the Corn Strategies event hosted by Wyffels Hybrids Inc., one of the primary problems in American agriculture is farmers are not appreciated the way they were half a century ago.

“Early in the 20th century, 26 percent of the country farmed, and 50 to 60 years ago we knew that milk did not come from a cardboard carton in the grocery store and that cows ate, pooped and made milk,” he said. “Today, people have no clue what you do on your farms.”

Therefore, Lehr said, his presentation really was a recruiting lecture.

“I’m recruiting everybody here to become an advocate for agriculture,” he said. “I want everyone to spend at least two hours per month talking to friends, neighbors and wherever you are about modern farming.”

At one time, farmers were the heroes of America, Lehr said.

“Now, anti-ag people paint a negative picture of agriculture and the food we produce to the public who don’t hear the positives from you,” he noted.

The general public does not understand farming, and they know nothing about the positive things, Lehr added.

The future is bright for the U.S. agriculture industry because the world needs more food, he said.

“There are 2 billion people undernourished, and there will be 2 billion more people on the planet by 2060,” he said. “We can’t feed these people without genetic modification, precision agriculture and reduced tillage.”

Lehr emphasized the importance of eliminating the myths such as the size of farms and the way farms are owned.

“Small farmers are not going out of business,” he said. “Fifteen percent of our farms produce 85 percent of the output, and 85 percent of the farms produce 15 percent of the output, so small farms in America are important.”

Lehr reported that 98 percent of the farms in the U.S. are owned by families. Of that percentage, he added, 90 percent are individual family owned, 6 percent are family partnerships and 2 percent are family corporations.

“The 2 percent of the farms owned by absentee corporations produce 6 percent of the output, which means 94 percent of the output is produced by family farms,” he said. “So set the public straight.”

Most people don’t understand the importance of nutrients for growing crops.

“They don’t realize that nitrogen, phosphate and potassium are to crops what fat, protein and carbohydrates are to people,” the science director explained. “Plants can’t live without these nutrients.”

Modern technology is helping to attract younger people to the agricultural industry.

“About 10 years ago the average age of farmers was 55, but I was in North Dakota four times last year and the average age of farmers there is 42 years old,” Lehr said. “The age is dropping because young people realize farming is exciting.”

Farmers no longer look at fields as producing the same output across all acres.

“They realize there’s a low, medium and high yield area that they can map on their computer and vary inputs,” Lehr said. “That makes agriculture more exciting than a video game.”

Many farmers now are using tablet computers for their farming businesses.

“There are over 300 applications for agriculture on an iPad, so it will take you four hours to peruse them,” Lehr noted. “You will find four to six apps that will make your life easier.”

But more importantly, he said, farmers need to talk about how there are involved with precision agriculture and how they use apps.

“People will be fascinated,” he said.

Another important topic for farmers to discuss is the use of biotechnology.

“In 1972, two California scientists were able to recognize genes on DNA molecules, which are recipes for traits,” Lehr reported. “By the end of the ‘80s, we began experimenting with improved foods.”

One of the first improvements was to find a strawberry that could withstand an early frost.

“The Artic Flounder is a fish that freezes in the ice during the winter, and when the ice thaws in the spring, the fish swims away,” he said. “They figured there must be a gene in the fish that protected it from being destroyed when it was frozen.”

Once the gene was identified, it was transferred into the strawberry.

“They were able to drop the frost point from 32 degrees to 28 degrees, and it is called the frost-free strawberry,” Lehr explained.

“All genes are transferable from plants to animals to humans,” he said. “We actually share 5,000 genes with corn.”

The goal of genetic modification is to find traits that are desirable for corn, soybeans, wheat or vegetables.

“We isolate those genes and move them with laser precision,” Lehr said. “Not one single human being has ever been made ill by genetically modified foods — there is nothing to be scared about.”

Environmental stewardship and reduced tillage practices also are important topics for farmers to explain.

“Reduced tillage improves soil moisture, improves soil tilth, saves fuel and reduces the wear and tear on machinery,” Lehr said. “We are the best land conservationists. We farm less land and produce more than we did 40 years ago.”