A Quarter-Century View

September 30, 2011 12:48 PM
A Quarter-Century View

Acronyms narrate changes in production agriculture

In retrospect, acronyms are mile-markers for the 25 years I’ve been writing for Farm Journal: LISA, PIK, CRP, GPS, GMO, RTK and Bt are just a few of the abbreviations that have flavored the stories I’ve written in the past quarter-century.

Farmers were flirting with LISA when my byline first appeared in the magazine. "Low-input sustainable agriculture" was a catchphrase for the tsunami of change that swept row-crop farming in the 1980s. The sexy part of LISA that drew a lot of attention was the talk of reducing fertilizer and chemicals, but LISA’s lasting impact was in swaying farmers to eliminate iron from their tillage menu. In less than a decade, moldboard plows disappeared from farmsteads, replaced by low- or no-till practices. This saved fuel and reduced water and wind erosion but made the skill of leaving a straight, smooth, dead furrow extinct.

Farmers in the ’80s spent a lot of time learning the government’s payment in kind (PIK) program. Some were good at PIK-and-rolling, where the government offered certificates for surplus grain supplies in exchange for removing ground from production. Conversations with farmers showed that their opinion of the program was strongly influenced by whether their PIK-and-roll made or lost them money.

A thumbs up. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is still with us today, and millions of pheasants, rabbits and songbirds are grateful for its existence. Some think CRP is the only thing that has prevented Illinois, Iowa and eastern Nebraska from becoming one huge corn field. The grudging farmer consensus is that CRP was/is a good thing because "a lot of this ground shouldn’t be farmed, and CRP gives me an excuse not to plow it up or farm it right to the edge of the creek."

GPS came to farms in the early 1990s. My first stories using the term required a parenthetical explanation (Global Positioning System) and a separate paragraph explaining what the heck it is and does. Today, GPS is a three-letter noun with incredible capabilities. Yield maps, grid sampling,
auto-steer and row and swath control are just a few of the opportunities that GPS brought to farmers. The value of GPS in vehicles and fish locators, however, has yet to impress me. I still get lost in big cities, and my catch rate when fishing is still laughable. Operator error may be a factor.

Genetically modified organism (GMO) crops are now widely accepted in North America, but the fear of Frankenstein-like results from toying with DNA made it a hot topic at the turn of the century. The benefits of better weed control, disease resistance and stronger stems and stalks have won the hearts of farmers. There are still naysayers who predict a train wreck for GMO technology, but the drive to maintain profits continues to encourage scientists to tweak, and farmers to accept, GMOs.

RTK added a precise new twist to GPS systems after the turn of the century. Real-time kinematics produce pinpoint accuracy, allowing GPS systems to accurately guide planters, listers and even tile plows.

Bacillus thuringiensis was an obscure bacterium until scientists turned it into a GMO that turns cornstalks into small trees. Yields benefited, but equipment manufacturers are still scrambling to improve harvest and tillage equipment to handle the increased tonnage and resilient residues of Bt hybrids.

These acronyms map the changes in agriculture during the past 25 years, but they aren’t all-encompassing. The Internet and e-mail have also affected our vocabulary: FWIW, I’ll be LOL if I’m still writing for FJ in another 25 years.


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