It's easy when thinking about jobs of the future to neglect the sector that has been with us since the beginning of and is basically the foundation of human civilization. But farming is changing dramatically, despite employing just 1 in 50 Americans today, in contrast with 48 in 50 when the U.S. broke free from Britain.
A book review in the Wall Street Journal on Monday added something to my short list: A Revolution Down on the Farm, by Paul K. Conkin, reviewed by Blake Hurst:
In recent decades, the most startling change in food production has had to do with productivity: Its rise has been so dramatic that U.S. agriculture turns out to be, in Mr. Conkin's words, "the most important industrial revolution in American history." He notes that, since 1950, agricultural productivity per hour of work has grown sevenfold (compared with 2.5-fold in the economy's nonfarm sector). Between 1950 and 1970, the farm work force declined by half, but the value of its total product "increased by approximately 40 percent." In 1900, the yield for corn was 2.5 bushels per acre; it was 40 bushels in 1950, 80 in 1970 and more than 120 in 2000. The output for other field crops has grown in a similarly exponential fashion, not to mention livestock productivity. Post-1950, Mr. Conkin writes, change was so rapid "that almost no one was able to measure, or comprehend, what was happening."
The reasons for such growth are many. Mr. Conkin gives a full account of the "great new machines" (including combines and cotton pickers) that have made harvesting faster and easier, as well as describing the ever more potent fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and animal- breeding techniques that scientists have made available to farmers. The "revolutionary surge" in output and efficiency has been a great blessing to America and the world, of course.