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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Innovation

The Malthusian race between the supply of food and the supply of people continues:

Sometimes a Bumper Crop Is Too Much of a Good Thing, by Alexei Barrionuevo and Keith Bradsher, NY Times: ...This season's parched-earth conditions were supposed to spell doom ... for the Illinois corn crop. Instead, the country's second-biggest corn-growing state harvested 16 percent more per acre than expected, helping the United States produce its second-largest crop ever. ... Despite the worst Midwest drought in 17 years, seed technology allowed farmers to continue their relentless increase in production. ... Individually, farmers welcome the new varieties of grain. "As a grower I hate to admit it, but the people in the labs really helped us out this year," said Joe Zumwalt, a third-generation farmer here in western Illinois... "If it weren't for the seed genetics ... our yields and our outcome wouldn't have been nearly what they were." ... [U]niversity researchers and big seed companies [are] working feverishly to increase corn yields. The push the last 15 years has also been to make seeds able to retain more moisture so they can better withstand severe droughts. ... Here in western Illinois, Mr. Zumwalt had expected corn yields of 120 to 130 bushels an acre because of the drought, but he ended up averaging 175 bushels. ... While Mr. Zumwalt, 26, gives plenty of credit to advancements in seed genetics, he is a modern-day example of how farmers have also increased efficiency through use of better equipment and water-management practices. He uses combines that rely on a global-positioning system to map exactly how much corn each acre of land is yielding, giving him critical information on how much fertilizer, seed and chemicals are needed for the next harvest. Even with this year's Farm Belt drought, American corn yields have increased by 31 percent since 1995, and by 72 percent since 1975. In recent years, Europe, where much less corn is produced, has followed suit as the big companies have introduced newer seed varieties there as well. Lately the development of new seeds has accelerated considerably. After two severe droughts in the 1980's, companies began pouring billions of dollars into seed research, particularly in corn,.... The challenge was to create that tolerance without sacrificing yield. In the 1990's corn breeders also began directing genetic technology developed in the human health industry into plant breeding. Breeders can now use DNA markers to study individual contributions from pieces of chromosome in the seed, allowing them to leverage multiple years of data. ... The result is that seed companies today are doubling the rate of genetic yield improvement in corn every year. Most recently, Monsanto, for example, claims its genetically modified seeds that limit the amount of corn root worm, a common problem in Illinois, have added at least nine bushels an acre. "We don't see any signs that our ability to improve the yield of corn is diminishing," said Marlin Edwards, global head of breeding technology for Monsanto. ...

Productivity. My apologies for launching into a personal story here. I sold tractor, implement, and combine parts to farmers in the rice country of northern California starting while in high school in 1974 and I continued through college at a different dealership so perhaps this captures my interest for that reason. I remember when UC-Blackwelder introduced tomato harvesters:

UC Tomato Harvester Designated as Historic Landmark, UC Davis News: The legendary UC-Blackwelder tomato harvester, which arguably saved California's processed tomato industry in the 1960s and raised concerns that machines were depriving people of employment, was recently designated a historic landmark during ceremonies at the University of California, Davis. ...

I also remember when electric eyes were put onto tomato harvesters to sort tomatoes by color using mechanical "fingers" that would kick out any deemed too green. It displaced a lot of labor that would ride on the harvesters in the fields and sort the tomatoes by hand as they came down the conveyer belt. It was terrible work with the temperature commonly in the 100s during harvest, it was dirty and dusty, the hours were long and the conveyer belt relentless. One of my high school jobs was pulling a bankout wagon with a small tractor beside the harvester and loading the tomatoes into individual wooden bins as they came out off the harvester. Eight bins per load at Shimizu Farms. You would fill each bin by varying the speed of the tractor, signal the harvester driver, pull away, and the person behind you in the circle would take your place. There was quite a bit of spillage in the process and it was labor intensive. I lost my job to an innovation where bankout was performed by pulling semi-truck trailers through the field with large tractors. This saved several steps in the load out process and reduced spillage.

I remember wondering what would happen to all those people, around five per harvester across all those fields, plus bankout drivers like me, the people who loaded the empty bins onto the tractor trailers by hand, the forklift drivers who loaded full bins onto trucks, and so on, and thinking they would, in essence, end up at the factories making the electric eyes and tomato harvesters. I ended up on another farm moving sprinkler pipe in alfalfa fields, then cutting, turning, bailing, and loading it into the farmer's barn, but it didn't occur to me then how my being freed to work elsewhere increased overall output.

    Posted by on Thursday, December 8, 2005 at 12:58 AM in Economics, Technology, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (33)

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