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Lehr looks at the Golden Age of agriculture

Written by Saige Albert
Laramie – With growing populations and advancements in technology, Jay Lehr, economist and director of the Heartland Institute, says that we are in the “Golden Age” of agriculture and encourages people to talk about the industry.
    “I travel the world and I study economics,” says Lehr.  “I think we owe it to agriculture to get the public to understand the industry again.”
    With an industry that is dominated by rapidly developing technology and a wealth of incorrect information in the media, he adds that it is important to educate others, particularly about the most important pieces of agriculture.
    “There are three major advances in agriculture that are important: precision agriculture, biotechnology and reduced tillage farming,” comments Lehr.
Precision technology
    “Producers are not looking at the farm part of their operation as a single monolithic piece of land anymore, but rather one that has high yield, medium yield and low yield zones on which they can utilize different inputs,” Lehr says.
        Utilizing precision technology, he continues that farmers are able to alter inputs using variable rate equipment, GPS and geographic information systems technology to obtain the best possible yield from every part of their farm ground.
    “Precision agriculture is sweeping the country,” he adds. “We are at almost 40 percent of our acres being farmed using precision agriculture.”
    Lehr also comments that GPS technology is relatively inexpensive and results in long-term financial benefits due to increased yield and reduced inputs.
    “It pays,” he says.
    While it seems common that the older generation of ranchers claims to be “computer illiterate,” Lehr says that is no excuse for not getting involved in precision agriculture.
    “If producers are afraid of computers, are they not aware that, within their family, they have an expert in computer technology?” asks Lehr. “Every family has one. We call them kids.”  
Tillage practices
    Aside from utilizing electronic technologies, Lehr also encourages producers to utilize conservation or no-till practices.
    “For the last 20 years, I have told producers to get off their plow and crunch the numbers to find out where you really make money,” he says. “Today, about 50 percent of acres are no-till or reduced till.”
    Using no-till practices, Lehr says producers save time, money, equipment wear and tear and fuel. Additionally, not operating equipment improves air quality and the practice improves soil, nearly eliminates soil erosion, reduces chemical runoff and helps improve moisture retention.
    “It takes about three years until fertility levels are where producers want them, and generally, yields will drop in the first year,” comments Lehr. “They will increase in the second or third year. The farmers I have worked with swore at no-till practices the first year and swore by them after that.”
Biotechnology benefits
    Another technological advance that Lehr marks as vital to continuing agriculture production is biotechnology.
    “We will only be able to feed the world because of biotechnology,” Lehr says. “We are able to make healthier food and to match our growing conditions.”
    The biotechnology in-dustry began in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA.
    “They discovered the DNA molecule, which is the recipe of life, and as the years went by, they were able to figure out genes, which are essentially the recipe for traits in plants and animals,” explains Lehr.
    Following those discoveries in 1972, California scientists figured out how to transfer genes from one life form to another and began looking for ways to incorporate their discovery into commercial production.
    “One of the first commercial ways we took gene from one life form to another was in frost-free strawberries,” says Lehr, explaining that a gene enabling the artic flounder to freeze during the winter and survive was isolated and inserted into strawberries, allowing the fruit to maintain it’s integrity better at colder temperatures. “They repeated their experiment hundreds of times and lowered the temperature for frost down to 27.5 degrees for these strawberries.”
Benefits to agriculture
    Aside from strawberries, biotechnology has been used to improve numerous plants, and Lehr says, “We have been looking in the animal and plant kingdom for traits that would do well in our food grains.”
    The resulting products allow seeds that require reduced water, are able to withstand higher heat, are adapted to a particular climate or soil type and have resistance to herbicides or pests.
    “Our food is getting better and better,” he comments. “Our genetically modified seeds will decrease our need for water to grow better in drought and even open up some arid land to agriculture.”
    However, Lehr also notes that biotechnology is frequently targeted as being bad.
    “The negative things are all untrue,” Lehr says, “because the government requirements to get a grain approved commercially are so onerous that you can’t get into food production unless science proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will be no problems.”
    Utilizing technology in agriculture it not only necessary, it is essential, but without correct information being available to the public, Lehr says agriculture may suffer. Getting the information out, he added, isn’t difficult.
    “If you live or work in a rural community in Wyoming, we make the assumption that everyone is knowledgeable about farming and ranching because it’s all around them,” says Lehr. “I can assure you that they are not. You don’t have to leave your community to do some good.”
    Lehr addressed the 2012 Agriculture Bankers Conference in May. Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

World population increase
    Economist Jay Lehr looks at the relationship between the world population and agriculture and says, “The future is very, very good here.”
    “Prices are up, and they are not going to go down,” he says. “The world populations will grow to about 9 billion.”
    With more mouths to feed, Lehr says increased ag production is necessary. At the same time, Lehr notes that birth rates have dropped dramatically.
    “In 1960, the world average family size was 6.5 children. Now it is down to 2.8 children per family,” he comments. “The birth rate is way down, and we will stop growing in the middle of this century.”
    Because of technological advancements, Lehr says women don’t need to have as many children to ensure survival of some, and women have taken on roles and opportunities outside of raising children.
    “We are the only developed country that is replacing itself,” Lehr added. “To replace the populations a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman is required.”    
    The U.S. continues to grow only because of immigration, while countries like Japan and Russia, which have birthrates of 1.2 children per woman, will likely see decreasing populations.