It was midnight on June 30, 1972.

Farmer Brown had been through a tough day, baling, loading and unloading square bales of hay for his cows.

He had spent the morning plowing his soybeans with the rolling cultivators on his Farmall 706 tractor, and then sprayed his cotton for boll weevils with methyl parathion using his International Harvester 770 tricycle sprayer.

Two of his sows were due to have pigs, so he herded them out of their mudholes and into the shelter he used as a farrowing pen. After a late supper of fresh garden vegetables and fried chicken, the chicken being donated by the cocky little rooster that had always been trying to spur him when he went in the chicken coop to get the eggs, he settled in to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

His wife woke him at midnight and sent him off to bed, where in true Rip Van Winkle fashion, he slept for 50 years. When he woke up, the world had changed. His farm had changed.

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Over the past 50 years, the world truly has changed, and farming has as well.

The little story above will bring back memories for those of us who have been around the block a time or two. The younger farm generation will just say “huh?”

I was asked about the five greatest changes to farming in the last 50 years, and I must admit it is difficult to keep the list just to five. I will try.

One of the big changes since the 1970s is the size of farms.

In the 1920s, the average farm size was 64 acres. Thousands of small family farms dotted the countryside. By the 1970s, many of those small farms were gone, and after the great farm recession of the 1980s, small farms became rare.

In the financial environment of 21% interest, there was a cleansing of the farm countryside in the ’80s. Farmers went bankrupt by the thousands, many farms were lost to the banks, and too many distressed farmers took their own lives.

Today, statistically speaking, farm size is pegged at about 195 acres, which is a bit misleading.

In the 1970s, there were mostly small and medium-sized farming operations, with a few large ones. Today there are many large operations and a lot of very small farms, but few mid-sized farms.

Most modern full-time operations farm 1,000 acres or more in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties. The midsized farms have been absorbed into the larger farms, and the very small farms or hobby farms are on the rise.

Off-farm income has risen dramatically and is the only way small farms stay viable. The farmer who in the 1970s made a decent living off a few hundred acres would barely make it in today’s farming world. It’s all about economies of scale.

Another great advancement is the rise of genetically modified crops that can resist insect damage, fight off diseases and tolerate herbicides that would have killed both the weed and the crop 50 years ago.

The first genetically modified cotton was introduced in 1996, followed by GMO corn and soybeans.

Today’s farmers would not be able to survive without them. Neither would the environment.

In the 1970s, cotton was sprayed with harsh insecticides every five to seven days to stay ahead of the boll weevil and boll worm. Today farmers might spray cotton three times for insects with very targeted insecticides.

The boll weevil is gone, eradicated by the advent of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, one of the greatest success stories of the agricultural revolution. The environment is on the mind of nearly every farmer today and genetics played a major role in making that happen.

Farmer Brown would not have known what to make of the modern miracles of GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and cellphones.

Nearly all area farmers use GPS systems in some form or fashion, whether to run auto-steer on their tractors, map out soil samples, apply variable-rate fertilizers, keep spray records and harvest their crops efficiently.

We can all appreciate the convenience of cellphones. Most farmers would be lost without them. They save time, give weather updates, keep records for us, link up to the internet for information we once had to drive to a pay phone to get, and remind us to quit farming in time to go to our kids’ little league games.

Farmer Brown would have had to hope he was in a good mood the day he planted his crops so the rows would be straight. Plowing crooked rows can be very stressful! GPS solved that problem. He would have also had to catch a ride to the local pay phone if the tractor broke down, or he needed more seed or fertilizer, or he chopped a finger off.

Finally, the size and cost of today’s equipment would have been a shocker for Farmer Brown.

He used 100-horsepower tractors, or less. He planted with four-row equipment, sprayed eight rows at a time and picked 20 acres of cotton on a good day.

Today 250-horsepower tractors are common. Planters plant 12 rows at a time on many farms. Sprayers can cover 30 rows at a time. Labor has gone from about five hours per acre to half an hour.

With today’s modern cotton pickers (which cost close to million dollars each) one man can pick 60 or more acres of cotton a day. Conservation tillage has replaced disc harrows, and no one cultivates row crops today.

Farmer Brown may have had $100,000 of debt, but today’s farmers often carry debt loads 10 times that amount.

It is the cost of doing business in today’s agriculture.

Farmer Brown would not have recognized his farm when he woke from his sleep after 50 years.

He would have been amazed at the equipment, would have wondered where the big round bales of hay came from, would have been shocked at the few items in his pesticide shed, and terrified of that little black box in his pocket that was ringing with a song.

He would have been shocked that his wife had a job outside the home teaching school, and that his grandkids were all off at college at Clemson studying computer technology. What is computer technology, he would wonder.

Surely, he must be dreaming, but still he walks out to the shed to look at all that is new and strange.

My, how farming has changed!

Charles W. Davis Jr. is Clemson Extension Service county agent for Calhoun and Richland counties.

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