Farm Belt - Changing Patterns
The Farm Belt was pretty well settled by 1890, and the corn-livestock farming system that worked well in southern Ohio was carried west to the edge of the Great Plains with only local adjustments. Early technological improvements such as the reaper (1831), the steel plow (1837), and other devices suited to the region's chief economic activity tended to ensure the system's success. More recent changes, however, have stimulated modifications to the traditional geographic patterns.
One of the more subtle changes in Corn Belt patterns lies in the rise of the importance of soybeans since the 1950s. As late as 1925, less than 200,000 hectares of soybeans were harvested in the United States. By 1949, soybean acreage had increased to about 4.5 million hectares, and during the next 20 years, it exploded to 16.1 million hectares; plantings in the Farm Belt exceeded 10 million hectares. Nationwide today, some 20 million hectares are planted in soybeans.
The reasons for the tremendous increase in soybean production are several. First, as a legume, soybeans act as a soil reconditioner by increasing the nitrogen content of the soil in which they are grown. Second, soybeans generally may be grown throughout most of the eastern United States, and even in areas receiving less than 50 centimeters of rainfall if irrigation is feasible. Third, the bean itself can be eaten directly or milled to produce an edible vegetable oil and a meal low in fat but very high in protein. The meal has been used primarily as a livestock feed supplement, but an increasing amount has entered human consumption patterns. And fourth, the world food and feed situation maintained export demand for soybeans at high levels. This has kept prices relatively stable, an encouraging condition to farmers.
This combination of advantages has concentrated a great amount of soybean production in the Farm Belt. The traditional three- and four-year rotations gradually gave way to a two-year corn-soybean rotation. In some cases within southern portions of the core, early maturing varieties of soybeans can be planted in the late spring after a harvest of winter wheat, giving the farmer three crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) every two years without significant loss of productivity in any year.
A more complex set of changes in Farm Belt geography is built on new levels of mechanization and alterations in average farm size. The original land survey in the region set the minimum farm size that could be purchased at 64.75 hectares, and then at half or one quarter that amount at various times. After the initial purchase, of course, parcels of land could be broken up and sold in even smaller lots or added to previously established farms.
By 1900, farm size in the Farm Belt states showed marked variation: about one-third of the farms were of 73 to 202 hectares, another third were of 40 to 72 hectares, and most of the remainder were smaller than 40 hectares. The amount of land in farms smaller than 73 hectares began to decline after 1935. By 1964, more than 50 percent of the farmland in these states was in farms larger than 105 hectares; fully one hectare in five was located on a farm larger than 202 hectares, a trend that has continued.
The reasons for these changes in farm size are economic and related to mechanization of operations. Farm Belt farmers traditionally have taken advantage of mechanical innovations to increase their output per work-hour. The large fields and gentle terrain in this region permitted early and continuing use of farm machinery that would have been impossible on smaller farms and erosion-prone hill farms.
A labor shortage during the early 1940s as the result of World War II accelerated the mechanization process, and innovations became oriented increasingly toward large-scale operations. Two- and four-row equipment gave way to six- and eight-row equipment. Storage and shipment operations also became mechanized and more and more attuned to the requirements of large-volume producers.
Accompanying the changes in farm size, the amount of land farmed in the region declined gradually. The proportion of land in farms was above 80 percent across much of the region in 1987, with most of Iowa and Illinois still showing rates above 90 percent. Even so, the overwhelming number of counties in the Farm Belt had experienced a reduction in land in farms across the previous two decades.
While still dominant, the fully owned, individually operated family farm is disappearing rapidly from the Farm Belt states. This decline is associated with the demands of increased farm efficiency. Personal effort and individual integrity still contribute to a farm's success, but the factor of scale is increasingly critical.
As the need for more land per operation increased, some farmers found it feasible to rent or lease additional land rather than purchase it outright. Other farm operators may be full tenants, choosing to work for the landowner through one of several arrangements. In addition, about one-third of those renting farmland lease it from a relative, often as a means of transferring the land from one generation to another.
Ethanol production also played an important role in both agricultural and energy markets in recent years. As the price of crude oil increased from less than $26 per barrel in 2001 to more than $133 per barrel in July 2008, ethanol became a viable and very profitable alternative. Strong profitability, government mandates on renewable fuels that supported demand, and tariffs and subsidies that supported prices all led to considerable increases in ethanol output. Indeed, annual ethanol output in 2008 had grown by more than five times the levels of 2000.
The growth in ethanol production, in turn, increased the demand for corn, the primary input in the production process, to a point where ethanol production is projected to use nearly 30 percent of the 2008 crop. As farmers planted more corn to meet the higher demand from ethanol plants, they reduced plantings of soybeans, which contributed to higher prices for this commodity as well. The result was record incomes for farmers and double-digit average annual increases in farmland values in corn- and soybean-producing states between 2003 and 2007.
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