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Communications > News Line > Posts > Farming as Rocket Science: Why American Agriculture is Different from the European Variety

The National 4-H council shared this article featuring 4-H Ag and Science programming that appears in "The Economist" today.

Before growing up to become farmers, a startling number of America's rural kids are taught how to build rockets. Every year rural skies fill with mini-missiles built by children. The largest fly hundreds of feet, carrying altimeters, parachutes and payloads of eggs. Baseball diamonds are popular launch sites, as are alfalfa fields: the latter tend to be large and, compared with other crops, alfalfa tolerates a fair bit of trampling. All this tinkering and swooshing explains a lot about American farms.

One youth organization lies behind many thousands of rural rocket launches: the 4-H club (it's an acronym, derived from a pledge involving head, heart, hands and health). Among city slickers, 4-H is not well known. Yet its existence and its history reveal a great deal about America's distinctive views of farming and food. For many, the name conjures up a single image: a farmer's child at a country fair, clad in best blue jeans and cowboy boots, gravely leading livestock round a show-ring. Lots of club members do rear and show animals, it is true: one of the sights of an American summer is watching an 11-year-old at a state fair, guiding a half ton steer past 4-H judges.

But 4-H was born to spread hard science as well as to shape character. Some 2 million children attend the group's clubs and camps, while millions more follow 4-H programs in schools. A big push is under way to reach more urban children, with schemes such as classroom egg incubators so that eight-year-olds learn that "chicken doesn't come from McDonald's". In farm states such as Nebraska, the organization reaches one child in three. 4-H clubs and camps form the youth wing of a partnership between government and public universities financed by gifts of federal land, dating back to the civil war and set up to transmit new technologies into every county in the union.

Visiting the Nebraska State Fair recently, Lexington toured a pavilion of 4-H projects. Some entries might be found at fairs in many countries: jars of jam, prize-winning vegetables and woodwork (your columnist frankly coveted a Perspex-fronted squirrel-feeding maze). But there was a striking emphasis on science and business, too. Alongside long shelves of model rockets, entries included a display on pig-eye dissection and a statistical analysis of poultry diseases. Eleven-year-old Cale Urmacher, a fourth-generation 4-H member, gave a robotics demonstration. Becca Laub, 16, outlined her plans for a tomato- and fish-farming enterprise and her ambitions to study engineering. People think farmers are uneducated, she scoffed. Her father has an economics degree and uses it to track market trends. Also, thanks to global-positioning gadgetry, one of the family tractors can drive itself, which is "pretty cool".

Rivals in other lands have sniffy theories about why America, a rich country, is so good at producing cheap food. They paint American farmers as pawns of giant agri-corporations, bullied by market forces to produce genetically modified Frankenfoods. Lexington has not forgotten the face pulled by a French agriculture minister, interviewed during a previous posting to Europe, as he mocked America's "aseptic" farm produce.

Foreign rivals are right about the power of market forces in America, but wrong to see its farmers as passive victims. Americans have thought differently about agriculture for a long time—and not by accident. Settled in a rush of migration, peaking in the 1880s, Nebraska's prairies were parcelled out to German, Czech, Danish, Swedish and even Luxemburgish pioneers. From the start the plan was to convert Old World homesteaders to the scientific ways of the New World. As the system developed, Congress sent county agents from universities to teach menfolk modern farming and their wives such skills as tomato-canning. In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. Older folk resisted such newfangled ideas as planting hybrid corn bought from merchants rather than seed corn from their own harvests. Enter the 4-H movement, which gave youngsters hybrid seeds to plant, then waited for the shock as children's corn outgrew their parents'. Later youngsters promoted such innovations as computers.

Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska's state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans "treated food as commodities".

Be Outstanding in your Field

Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.

Nebraska, a big beef and corn producer, feels bullish in more ways than one. There is much talk of China's meat-craving middle class and a fast-growing global population. Last year farming graduates at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln could pick from multiple job offers. America is "completely set up" to supply soaring world demand—as long as it can keep using GM crops and other technology, says Will Miller, a UNL student who reared enough heifers as a 4-H member to pay his way through college. Not all young farmers are as biotech-keen. 4-H offers organic projects, too (deftly treading a path through the culture wars that dog so many fields in America, including science). But many are just as enterprising. America set out to plant science and capitalism in its farm kids. They have taken deep root.


John Hays

1/24/2014 2:43 PM
The French Agriculture Minister (as are others in Germany), is correct in his assessment. Your tainted historical viewpoint (all European farmers learned from their mistakes once they began settling this continent, and from the very beginning - the ignorance and neglect of our natural resources began to peak in the late 19th century, and forced the government's hand during the Dust Bowl). The CCC saved the US, not programs like 4-H.

You're preaching an outdated concept - as both an historian of science and a field biologist, I can't believe the spin placed on this article.  Most farmers I've met over the years - throughout the Midwest and southern Alabama, Georgia, and north Florida, wouldn't succumb to the use of pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs as practiced and taught if they could compete in the marketplace - if I've heard it once, I've heard it a 1000 times.  Just how much money is Monsanto or someone else paying you to spout out this misinformation?  Or do you actually believe in this non-sense your typing?

The capitalist ethos in the country extends all areas of production, not just to farming.  The notion of profits over everything via farming put this nation on the brink of ecological disaster due to the drive to produce more exports and feed the nation in the early 20th century, and now "you" guys think you have all the answers - once again!  I hope I live long enough to witness nature "slap" humans again, and badly.

Crossing crops with wild relatives and other strains was not fully understood until the late 19th century, and it wasn't discovered in the US.  It was scientists in the U.S. (some of them European, BTW) that taught proper farming techniques.  Not only that, the scientists themselves fought bureaucrats at every level that were more stubborn than most farmers...but at least the farmers had a valid reason not borne of greed, but of survival.

Read the history (if you like actual scholarship) of the CCC and learn about how better farming practices are not "quaint" ideas, but ideas that threaten large industries more than anyone - plus, we can't live without those subsidies, can we?!