Beyond Imagining

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

These days, new technologies arrive so fast, we’ve come to take change for granted.

Now and again, though, it’s worthwhile to pause for a moment from our fast-paced lives and ponder how different things are now compared with 10, 20 or even 100 years ago.

The folks at the Lancaster County office of Penn State Extension are preparing to do just that early next month when they hold their 100th annual meeting.

Cooperative Extension in Pennsylvania was still in its infancy when the office opened in 1913, manned by a single agent — Floyd “Dutch” Bucher.

Records from those days indicate that Bucher was eager to get out and visit the more than 10,000 farms then in the county, at first making use of the extensive trolley system to travel through the countryside, then buying a horse and the next year a motorcycle.

That’s about twice the number of farms that are in the county today, most of them small, diversified operations that were much more dependent on human labor, supplemented by horse power, than today’s farms.

Nearly all the farmers were generalists in those days with a few head of cattle, some pigs and a small flock of chickens, according to Leon Ressler, current Extension director for Chester, Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

“I don’t know that every farm had every species” of livestock, he said, but farming certainly wasn’t as specialized as it is now with some farmers milking hundreds of cows while others raise just swine or chickens or grains.

It certainly would have been hard in those days for Bucher to imagine a farm with a million chickens, Ressler said.

Even the Plain sect farmers who still use horses are much more specialized today than they were then, he said.

Bucher spent the next 36 years teaching the county’s farmers ways to become more productive.

Many others have followed in his footsteps with the Lancaster County office now staffed by a dozen full-time employees and about the same number of part-timers, Ressler said.

Their work over the past 100 years has paid off in astounding increases in productivity.

In the early 1900s, a good corn crop would yield about 40 bushels an acre. A hundred years later, that’s grown to 175 bushels with some people hitting 230 to 250 in good years.

Likewise, wheat production has risen from 22 bushels an acre to 60-70 bushels today, and the county’s dairy herd has grown from 40,000 cows to around 110,000.

Such an abundance of change over the past 100 years makes one wonder what the county’s agricultural landscape will look like 100 years in the future.

Ressler is hesitant to hazard a guess.

“I’m not that much of a prophet,” he said. “But you can fantasize all you want.”

Technology is likely to play a big role in the changes in store for farmers over the next century, including, Ressler said, a lot more developments from genetic engineering.

One can imagine an agriculture of the future where farmers’ fields resemble the tightly controlled hydroponic greenhouses of today, but with controls over many more aspects of plant genetics and nutrients than are available today.

Scientists have already made many of the basic breakthroughs in sequencing plant and animal genetic codes that will make such fine-tuning possible.

Feeding the rapidly growing world population will likely provide much of the impetus for agricultural researchers and farmers to continue their quests for ever greater crop yields and more efficient livestock production.

That same population growth could also impinge even more on existing farmland than it does today, yet Ressler said he doesn’t foresee a day when the Philadelphia megalopolis engulfs all of the county’s farmland.

“I’m suspecting we will not see the population growth in the next 100 years like we had in the last 100,” he said.

One factor that should be considered when speculating about the future, Ressler said, is global warming.

If the current trend continues, it could greatly change what crops are suitable for this area, although Ressler pointed out that it’s not clear whether it’ll take 100 years or 1,000 for such changes to become significant.

For instance, the next century could see the Corn Belt shifting northward into Canada, he said, while Pennsylvanians start growing oranges.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind having oranges in my backyard.”

Still, Ressler said he suspects that someone who stumbles over this editorial 100 years from now will have a good laugh over how wildly inaccurate such guesses turned out to be in actuality.

He said when he thinks about how his parents went from horses to jet planes in a single generation, it is nearly impossible to imagine what his great-grandchildren’s generation will behold.

Change could even accelerate to the point where there’s a whiplash effect that turns everything back.

What will actually happen is simply beyond imagining.

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