By Keith Roultston
As you drive down my concession in the former East Wawanosh Township in northern Huron County, there’s something remarkable: there’s a family living on every one of the original 100-acre farms along the first two-block stretch.
This fact has more to do with the prosperity of the past farming generation than today’s. Only three of those homes are occupied by the families that farm the land. The other eight homes are small acreages severed from the farmland because the brick and stone homes built mostly by the extended McGowan family in the 1800s, were of such a high quality it would have been a travesty to see them demolished.
Still, there’s a lesson in those numbers. At one time the surplus production available for sale from those family farms, was so small that it took many farmers to provide food for a relatively small urban population. Today we have fewer farmers than ever before but more people living in cities who don’t grow any food – and yet we still have surplus food to send to feed people in other parts of the world.
Among many of those non-farming Canadians are researchers – often farm-born themselves – who are further increasing the productivity of our land. My granddaughter has spent the last few years doing research into animal science while she earns her Masters Degree from the University of Guelph. One of her mentors is my neighbour’s son, who has also left the family farm for animal research at the University.
I’m guessing there are probably more people engaged in agricultural research at this moment than ever before in history. Researchers have increased the yield of our fields and barns, and in doing so have created wealth that allows us to afford more researchers.
On our concession, much of the land is rented to very large cash-crop operators farming thousands of acres. A little math shows that these farmers, because of the results of plant breeders, are likely producing yields of wheat, soybeans and corn measured by the millions of bushels.
In other areas of the large parts of our county where these large-scale cash-cropping operations operate, there are probably roads where hardly a house remains because of research that produces crop yields that once would have been thought unimaginable. It means we don’t need as many farm families to produce more food than ever before.
I was reminded of this virtuous circle, where better farming practices free up more people to do research which in turn makes farms more productive, when I read a recent piece by University of Guelph Professor Simon Simogyi. He was talking about the complaints about rising food prices and concerns that climate change will have an even bigger effect by reducing yields and thereby driving up prices.
But meanwhile, Professor Simogyi said, researchers at his university and elsewhere are busy trying to help primary producers cope with the changes that climate change will cause, such as ways to protect fruit trees from extreme environmental changes.
New techniques in precision agriculture will lead to other advances in farm production, he said. For instance, at the university’s research facilities in Elora, there are more than 300 monitors collecting data on the movement and behavior of dairy cattle. Meanwhile 1.8 million data points are collected per day to inform soil health research.
Researchers have changed farming so much since the days when there was a farm family on every 100-acre farm and in doing so has freed up the children and grandchildren of those farmers to do more research to feed the world’s growing population and, hopefully, find ways to counter climate change.◊