At its core, farming hasn't changed

Yes, there are differences. But farming and ranching today are essentially the same as they were in homesteading days.

Jonathan Knutson.jpg
Jonathan Knutson

Not long ago I talked with a North Dakota native who had returned to visit the state after living elsewhere for decades. The visitor was astonished at how modern agriculture has changed from what she grew up with on her family farm. Bigger equipment, fewer working farmsteads, different crops — "Farming isn't even the same anymore," she said.

I nodded politely and said something like, "Yes, there have been many changes."

Now, with harvest underway and giant, high-tech combines roaring through fields, I'm reminded yet again of how much farming has changed. And I think of what that woman said and a better, fuller response I could have given her.

She was right, of course, about all the changes. There are too many to list here, but here's a short list:

Crops? Corn and soybeans are grown much farther north and west than they used to be, thanks in part to new, improved varieties. And new varieties for other crops, such as spring wheat, allow yields to hold up better than ever when weather doesn't cooperate.


Equipment? Farm machinery keeps getting bigger and more sophisticated. Automation has removed much of the backbreaking physical labor; dairy is a perfect example.

Weeds? New ones, such as Palmer amaranth, invade the Upper Midwest, and ones that already were here continue to evolve.

Fewer farms? Absolutely. Minnesota, for example, had 68,882 farms in 2017, the last year for which reliable data is available, down from 75,542 five years earlier (and 98,537 in 1974). The need for greater economies of scale pushes farms to get larger, and bigger farm equipment allows it to happen.

There have major social changes, too. One example: Once, farm families and farm couples typically socialized with nearby farm families and farm couples who belonged to the same church, same political party or same farm group. Today, with many fewer farm families and farm couples in most rural communities, people need to expand who they hang out with. In some cases, even Farm Bureau Republicans and Farmers Union Democrats are socializing. Talk about big changes!

The changes seem even greater, of course, to people who haven't been here to see them occur gradually, month after month, year after year. The woman I talked with is evidence of that.

But change is nothing new in Upper Midwest agriculture. It's been occurring since homesteading days. The switch from horses to tractors, the arrival of combines, the introduction of different crops, the declining number of farms — all these and more are part of area ag's history.

Sure, homesteaders would be shocked initially if they could see what modern agriculture has become. But eventually they'd figure out the essential similarities. And though they wouldn't like all the changes — the decline of small towns in particular — I think they'd be pleased overall.

Fundamental things apply

Farming is still all about putting seed in the ground, nurturing it during the growing season, hoping to harvest it successfully and then trying it sell it as a profit. Ranching is still about caring for livestock through heat and cold, drought and blizzards, and hoping to turn a profit.


Farm equipment and seed dealers still supply products that their customers need. Extension officials still provide impartial, knowledgeable guidance. And, yes, Agweek still does its best to provide accurate, useful information to other agriculturalists.

At its core, Upper Midwest farming and ranching haven't changed. I doubt they ever will. To me, at least, that's a good thing.

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