Prairie Fires, Abe Lincoln, and Ag Research
I may be wrong, but I think our family farm stayed afloat during the past 160 years because of agricultural research.  After all, great-great grandpa Bernard had two strikes against him when he returned to the home plot here in central Iowa.  A vicious prairie fire in 1857 sent him and his wife Lydia back to Pennsylvania, and several years of service during the Civil War kept his farming skills on hold. By the 1870s, they were back on the prairie using wheat varieties that had been tested at nearby Iowa State College.  President Lincoln’s Land Grant Act was producing results that would continue aiding agricultural growth to this day.
Bernard’s son, Bill, made beef production profitable in the 1890s by using information from cattle associations, and in the 1920s, Grandpa Berry started tossing the biggest and best ears of open-pollinated corn into a separate side box on the horse-drawn wagon during harvest season. These “best seed lines” were used for planting the following year, but by 1930 a neighbor coaxed Berry into planting a bag of hybrid corn provided by a seed company. Research had produced corn that stood straighter and yielded much more. Early signs of the green revolution had begun.
Dad kept close tabs on research during the 50s and 60s as farmers used “rag-doll” tests on soybeans to check germination, and eventually many were doing strip tests in the field to determine a difference in varieties, fertilizer amounts, and other variables. Companies and publically-funded scientists were doing the same, and as Dad says, “Land Grant universities kept providing excellent farmer-friendly research. Agronomists held meetings and test plot demonstrations, and university farms were accessible for farmers needing the latest crop and livestock information.”
Animal science was blossoming long before the words “genetically engineered” appeared. As an eight-year-old, I watched the local veterinarian do an autopsy on a large hog we found dead in the grove pasture. I don’t know if it took the nearby U.S. Animal Disease Lab to help him determine that it was deadly nightshade that killed the animal, but many veterinarians and livestock growers have relied on the research done at public and private institutions.
Modern agricultural producers rely on research more than ever for the latest information regarding seeds, fertilizer, equipment, and livestock, and with various digital devices at their disposal, farmers can access research results from the cabs of their tractors. And now that climate, genetics, the economy and other issues have become globally linked, it is even more crucial that research comes from varied, independent sources.  The recent CAST Commentary, Investing in a Better Future through Public Agricultural Research addresses these concerns and is available for free by clicking here.
I’m not sure today’s research would have helped Bernard and Lydia avoid the prairie fire, but they—and Mr. Lincoln–would marvel at the changes that credible scientific inquiry brought to the virgin prairie that eventually became a sesquicentennial family farm.  By Dan Gogerty

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