In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.

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A field of dried soybeans ready to be combined.
A field of dried soybeans ready to be combined.

Although “that time of year” in corn and soybean country is a few weeks late, it has finally arrived. Whether starting up their new $300,000 capital investment for the first time or pulling out their trusted and infinitely tinkered-with machine, farmers are taking to the fields in one of industrial agriculture’s greatest creations: the combine.

Last week I got to go along for the ride as Jerry, a conventional corn and soybean farmer in North Central Iowa, harvested soybeans in his John Deere contraption.

By today’s standards, Jerry plays in the minor leagues. His combine, which he bought used in the mid-’90s, is a 1982 model. It has the capacity to hold about 225 bushels of grain and can, on a good day, combine 50 acres of corn. A top-of-the-line John Deere combine these days costs upwards of $300,000 (without value package configurations), has a 300-bushel grain tank, and can harvest 200 acres of corn per day. For harvesting soybeans, Jerry uses a 20-foot header (the piece of equipment attached to the combine that cuts and collects the plants), which he also bought used; a new 30-foot header costs about $30,000.

All combines are not created equal, but they all get the same basic job done. Mesmerized, I watched as the machine engulfed thousands of soybean plants, removed the leaves, stems, and pods, and spit out individual soybeans into the grain tank. Going a steady 3.6 mph, we filled in a short time the 225-bushel grain tank and had to go unload the booty into the grain carts that Jerry had parked at the end of the field. As we went, tracking devices displayed the moisture and yield of the harvest, as well as the conditions of the field and combine speed.

A John Deere combine.
A John Deere combine.

As he gracefully maneuvered the soybean-filled behemoth, Jerry wondered out-loud what his father, a farmer who grew up in the earlier half of the 20th century, would say about the use of these contraptions.

In his father’s time, about 12,000 corn plants would grow on an acre, and on a good day, they could harvest 100 bushels. Jerry now crams 35,000 plants on an acre and can harvest 9,000 bushels a day (with newer equipment, that number can reach 30,000 bushels per day). Do the math, and we have the ability to harvest as much as 300 times more corn on the same amount of land and in the same amount of time as they did a century ago. Combines have replaced a significant amount of labor; Jerry only spends 130 hours a year — a little over three work weeks — harvesting 500 acres.

Conventional agriculture depends upon the substitution of labor with machines and chemicals to produce the high yields that are at the base of the cheap and abundant food supply in this country. And some of the substitution is good; harvesting grains by hand like Jerry’s father did when he was younger is tedious work that few would choose to do.

But this trade-off has come back to bite the behind not only of the people who eat cheap food, drink pesticide-laden water, or live in dying rural communities, but also the conventional farmers who are sowing the seeds of their own demise.

As the combine shaves the soybean plants off of the fields, Jerry wonders whether his 28-year-old son, Kyle, will be able to make it as a farmer. Jerry has been able to be successful thanks to a mix of factors — adopting no-till practices, finding reasonable rent rates for land from neighbors, and having a knack for fixing large machinery — without following the trend of getting bigger, buying more land, and owning larger and larger machines. (The average farmer around here farms at least 5 times the amount of acres as Jerry and boasts the latest John Deeres.) And for several years, of course, Jerry had an off-farm source of income.

Filling up the grain tank.
Filling up the grain tank.

But to stay in the farming game, Kyle will have to upgrade his machinery and find more land to buy or rent, at quickly increasing prices. To cover the high input costs (machinery, chemicals, seed, land), farmers have to squeeze as many bushels as they can as quickly as they can from an acre. To do so, they have to buy the highest-yielding seed technology, the fastest combine, those extra acres of fertile Iowa ground — to then have to squeeze even more bushels off of the land to cover the new costs. It is a vicious cycle, aided by farm programs that reward farmers for high yields of a handful of commodity crops.

Jerry shakes his head. “He wouldn’t call this farming,” he says, referring to what his father would say to the use of large, powerful machines to harvest acres upon acres of corn and soybeans.

These machines, not the farmers, control farming and are often times in commodity production the difference between a farmer who breaks even and maybe makes some money, and one who continues to go into debt.

The next generation of combines doesn’t even require a driver; using GPS systems and computer systems, farmers are and will be able to program machinery to do the job without them at the wheel. Many would view this just-about-complete removal of human labor from farming as the natural progression of our industrial food system and as the great benefit of a production system that so ravages our environment, health, and communities.

But have we gone too far and become slaves of a system we created? Ostensibly designed to support new and aspiring grain farmers, high-production farm technologies actually undermine their ability to work the land.