“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there is a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Ok. You can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance … You can conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’”
– Inherit the Wind (1960 film)
Price tags were largely absent at the Iowa Farm Progress Show held Aug. 30 – Sep. 1, 2016 in Boone, Iowa.
Exhibitors displayed their latest seed hybrids, powerful tractors, massive combines, efficient implements, and innovative farm equipment.
You had to ask for the price.
My Dad and I were told the technology mechanizing the opening of a grain bin lid, allowing a farmer to open it safely while on the ground with just a touch on an iPad, cost $3,500. The Dodge diesel pick-up truck that we test drove, promising 29 miles per gallon, cost $56,000. The new Tribine combine making its Farm Progress Show debut, with a gas tank allowing it to run continuously for 24 hours before refilling, a hopper holding enough grain to fill a semi-truck, and a telescoping unloading auger extending out 72 feet, cost a cool $500,000 (accessories customizing it to harvest corn or beans not included).
Farmers live in a world of prices. Profits are squeezed out of tiny margins between commodity prices and input prices.
When we came across the driverless tractor displayed by Case IH (pictured above) it became clear to me that the purchase price of new technology is only part of the price that must be paid.
Society also pays a price.
Videos on screens around the driverless tractor explained how GPS and computer technology would allow it to be programmed to autonomously drive from farm to field to perform a task, such as planting corn, and then return safely to the farm. The video assured us that built-in safety features would stop it if it encountered a vehicle or other equipment.
Impressive technology, but I was haunted by the absence of a steering wheel or seat on the new tractor. There was no place for a farmer. As I looked at it, the image of a hooded executioner from the medieval ages came to mind.
Is this the ultimate destination of farm progress: the elimination of the farmer?
I am not against progress.
Progress has allowed agriculture to meet the demands of a growing global population without destroying and burning out the land. People who starve today do so because of injustices and inequality in the distribution of food, not because of an inadequacy in the food supply. As global population increases, and with severe weather events of global warming threatening the continuity and dependability of the food supply, continued technological progress is imperative.
But farm progress has always led to the need for fewer farmers.
Two fence rows once separated three farms in the mile section immediately to the east of our family farm. They are now gone and the land farmed as one continuous field by one farmer. Most likely, he is producing greater yields more efficiently than the three farmers who farmed the land before him.
But, what is the price society pays as the number of farmers decrease? As rural communities lose population? As fewer people live off the land?
This trend is not unique to agriculture. In this election cycle, millions of voters across the country have said enough is enough. They know from their own lives that progress in technology and free trade has come with a price: lost jobs and declining communities. They have turned their anger against immigrants perceived as stealing jobs and a political establishment seen as benefiting from progress while working Americans pay the price.
We do have a choice.
Among the crowds at the Farm Progress Show was an Amish family. The Amish are a community of farmers shunning technological progress and remaining rooted to the technology of my grandfather’s childhood of the early 20th century.
I thought it was odd they attended the Show. Were they there to see what they were missing?
Or, did they attend to show the rest of us what we are missing?
While I don’t believe their rejection of technology in favor of community is the answer, I do believe they can remind us we have a choice.
We can either serve progress or progress can serve us.
We can choose to either be held captive to progress and mindlessly latch on to new technology, ignoring the social price that will inevitably have to be paid.
Or, we can choose to recognize that progress always creates winners and losers. This doesn’t mean we won’t move forward. But, recognizing the social price will give us a better chance to adopt new technology in ways that allow it to serve us, rather than us serving the technology.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the price tag on the driverless tractor would not only include the purchase price, but also the social price paid in lost farmers and shrinking farm communities?
That would clearly show the truth that progress is never a bargain. It must be paid for.