Tuesday Feb. 16th, 2010

Montana Wheat Feeding the World

August Uhl

Was the chicken on the dinner plate pecking around the yard earlier today? Probably not, but during much of America’s history, a good part of the population was living off the land in a direct way. Back in “the day” more people were growing their own food and raising critters of some sort. Today, America is much more diverse and specialized. People do all kinds of things now and most Americans outsource food production to someone else, buying food with money earned doing whatever it is they are doing. There are still plenty of people living off what they raise on the farm, but they represent a shrinking minority. The number of Americans living in urban areas has increased from 64% in 1950 to 81% today and, according to United Nations DESA figures it is estimated that this will increase to 90% by 2050. This isn’t just happening in America, the rest of the world is also becoming more urban. The trend towards urban living is occurring at the same time that the world-wide population in general is growing. So, if everyone is moving to the city, who is going to grow the food?
City dwellers still eat food, they just aren’t producing it. Some like vegetables, others avoid vegetables altogether. Some really like Mexican food. The point is, except for the small numbers of city dwellers that are extreme localvores, subsisting on pigeons, squirrels, and a Thanksgiving goose bagged at the golf course, people in cities eat food that comes from somewhere else. Now some theorize that in order for future populations to feed themselves there will have to be an increase in urban food production to augment what is grown in the countryside. This could involve greenhouses, maybe multi-level greenhouses. We could see a future where urban food farms are co-located with carbon dioxide sources, such as breweries, in order to grow super fruits and vegetables that are big and tasty because they love all that CO2. No matter the form of urban future farms, they will look really cool because hey; its the future. All of this may happen, but for now, food is mostly produced in rural areas.
Figuring that most food is grown outside the city and fewer people are choosing to live outside the city, then, in aggregate, fewer people are available to work at producing food. Furthermore, those that still grow the food have to grow more to feed all the people that are doing other things such as drawing renderings of future beer fueled urban farms or, even further removed, writing about someone else who is drawing the rendering for the future beer fueled farm.
One way more food has been grown on the farm has been through rising crop yields and when it comes to growing things in Montana, wheat is number one. As of 2007, Montana was the number three wheat producing state, typically following Kansas and North Dakota. The Treasure State wheat harvest consistently tops five million acres and together the wheat growers of Montana help to make America one of the top wheat exporters in the world. Based upon USDA data, the average yield for all Montana wheat harvested has moved from 18 bushels per acre for the period of 1946-1960 to 30 bushels per acre for the period of 1995-2009, an increase of 68%. During the same two periods, the average overall area of Montana’s wheat harvest went from 4.8 million acres to 5.25 million acres, an increase of only 9.3%. The total Montana wheat harvest moved from an average of 86 million bushels per year for the baby boom period to 158 million bushels per year during the last 15 years. Given that the number of acres harvested during these two periods only grew by 9.3%, its clear that the increase in Montana’s wheat harvest is largely due to the significant increase in yield.

data source: USDA NASS
Its difficult to quantify the factors that contribute to increasing crop yields but growing more grain on the same land due to increasing yields is a form of production efficiency. Advances in agronomy have also significantly pushed up crop yields. Agronomists, such as the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, have contributed to the selection of new varieties of wheat and other crops around the world that are higher yield, more resistant to weather, disease, and pests, and are adapted to local conditions. These scientists can be credited with preventing the starvation of perhaps billions of people. Advances in farming techniques, additives, fertilizers, soil amendments, mechanization, and the resulting economies of scale, and more have all played their role in the higher yields seen today.
If current trends of population growth and urbanization continue, the challenge to produce enough food will also continue. Increasing global population will not only mean that more food must be produced, but it will also likely mean that crop yields will need to continue to climb. Farming can be a business of thin margins and anything that allows this work to be done more efficiently and with fewer inputs such as water, fuel, labor, herbicide, and fertilizer will help. Whatever the future looks like, Montana farmers will continue doing their part to feed the world. In fact, it may even be that the urbanization trend itself will help. That’s just more room for wheat farms.