Like so many businesses, Drew Wendland’s family has struggled with finding enough workers for their multi-generational farm in Autaugaville, Alabama in the past few years. Drew points to a framed photo in his office that demonstrates the challenge.
“It was taken at one of our Christmas parties in the 90s. There are about 30 workers in the picture. Fast forward to now and we are down to only eight workers across the whole operation. It’s a huge challenge.”
As a fifth-generation farmer born and raised on the farm, Drew says Autauga Farming Co. has always been a very family and community-oriented operation. He says he doesn’t make any business decisions lightly, because he knows the impact they have on the rest of the community and the generations to come.
“Our farm is intertwined with the community that we live and work in, and every decision we make has the potential to affect the people around us,” Drew said. “We work relentlessly every day to make the best decisions supported by research so we can take care of our resources and our community.”
Drew says advancements in agricultural research are critical in helping family farms like his overcome this nationwide labor shortage and a host of other challenges to continue feeding a growing global population.
“Better technology, bigger machinery, automation advancements, apps, or any other tools we can use remotely play a significant role in helping us get more work done with fewer people. Not only does it save us money, but it saves consumers money at the grocery store too.”
So how does investing in ag research benefit all of us?
To understand the importance of investing in ag research, you also must understand the impact of food inflation. Food prices in general have been climbing over the past couple of years, especially for many food staples like meat, bread and fruit.
Purdue University’s College of Agriculture tracks average food prices and their trends over time. A report shows the average price of bacon per pound hit an all-time high in October 2022 at $7.61, nearly $2 more than what bacon cost a year earlier.
Dr. Brady Brewer, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue says while food prices generally increased about 2% in prior years, they increased by over 10% from 2021 to 2022.
“Inflation has hit consumers and farmers just as bad,” Dr. Brewer said. “Part of the reason grocery store prices increased by 10% is because prices for farmers rose by that amount or more.”
There are several factors contributing to rising food prices. They include long-standing challenges, such as the growing demand for food globally as the world’s population is set to grow to about 10 billion people by 2050. Also, higher transportation costs and extreme weather events. But there are also several unique challenges contributing to recent food inflation including the lingering supply chain issues from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine -- which disrupted the global supply of agricultural commodities such as wheat, corn sunflower oil and fertilizer.
Investing in ag research can help address many of these challenges. New technology increases crop production and efficiency, allowing farmers to harvest more food with fewer resources (such as fuel, fertilizer, and water). Research can also enable farmers to grow crops under increasingly volatile growing conditions.
Since taking over as the crop production manager at Autauga Farming Co. in 2017, Drew has participated in several on-farm trials. Those came with the help of his local ag retailer GreenPoint Ag and Auburn University, with the aim to become more sustainable and profitable.
“Cost of production has probably doubled since I started,” Drew said. “We’re still playing poker but now we’re at the high-stakes table. Our farm is making it a priority to learn about and test new strategies or technology that will help us make informed decisions and feel good about what we’re doing with our money.”
Autauga Farming Co. has taken part in trials to help choose just the right seed, cover crop and precision techniques to fit the business’ profitability and sustainability goals. Drew says the team at GreenPoint Ag has also helped him create more meaningful management zones at the field level.
“We now have nearly 10 years of data which shows us there’s variability in every field,” Drew said. “We have split our operation into three zones – below average, average and above average producing areas and do different treatments in each one. This is one of the best practice changes we’ve brought to our farm in the last few years.”
Amy Winstead is the Vice President of Retail Sales and Operations at GreenPoint Ag. GreenPoint strives to continue working hand-in-hand with growers like Drew – it’s essential for their future as much as his.
“We talk a lot with our growers about precision ag perspective,” Amy said. “When they have information, they also have the power to make better decisions that are backed by data. It’s up to all of us in the ag industry to also inform consumers about what an organic or sustainably grown crop really means. We want consumers to know farmers are doing everything they can to support and supply them with safe and affordable food.”
Dr. Brewer says there have been several studies that show how ag research is improving crop yields. One particular Purdue study took a look at historical corn grain yields in the U.S. A graph shows a significant increase starting in the 1930s with the introduction of hybrid corn and then nitrogen fertilizer. It also shows science, rising input levels and management improvements have allowed the U.S. to increase corn yields by about two bushels per acre per year for over 60 years.
“While the study only looked at corn yields, this improvement trend can be applied to almost any other commodity -- including dairy and eggs,” Dr. Brewer said.
That’s important because studies suggest the world’s farmers must produce more food in the next 40 years than they have in the last 5,000 to meet global demand – and do it with limited land and water resources.
At Iowa State University, Dr. David Peters is a professor of rural sociology and studies factors that impact the quality of life for farmers and rural communities. His department recently released a study that showed inflation is affecting rural households more than urban households. It found that from 2020 to 2022, rural households paid an estimated $8,120 extra due to inflation, almost 9% more than urban households over the same time period. Dr. Peters says food costs also jumped 18% for rural households compared to 13-14% for urban households from 2020 to 2022.
“The main factor is the difference in transportation costs,” Dr. Peters explained. “It is more expensive for trucks to deliver to these widely dispersed towns. Another big issue is food spoilage when rural grocery stores are unable to sell everything.”
Dr. Peters says the typical food you buy from the store travels an average of 1,300 to 1,500 miles and can easily spoil or get damaged during the process. This results in large amounts of food waste, which in turn can contribute to rising food prices. Dr. Peters says this issue can be addressed with increased ag research to help develop more local and regional food systems.
“Scientists could also use genetic advances to make fruits and vegetables more robust to prevent spoilage or damage,” Dr. Peters said. “And ag engineers could develop better storage so if there is a transportation delay, supply chain teams will be able to better preserve those foods.”
Research supported by the USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) finds spending on public agricultural research and development (R&D) from 1900 to 2011 generated $20 on average for every $1 spent in the U.S. In spite of this, ag research spending has been trending downwards. The latest report shows in 2019, public agricultural R&D spending in the U.S totaled $5.16 billion, about a third lower than the peak in 2002 when spending was $7.64 billion.
This is not just a problem for the food or ag industry. Food security is national security. Countries like China and Brazil continue to outspend the U.S. in ag research. This makes U.S. farmers more reliant on foreign investment and technology and poses a significant risk to their ability to produce food and compete on a global stage.
Every five years, Congress authorizes a new farm bill, which has a tremendous impact on farmers and the agricultural industry. The current farm bill is set to expire in September. Many bipartisan lawmakers and ag groups are pushing to prioritize increased agricultural research in the final bill, leveraging public-private partnerships to tackle critical issues including drought, climate change and global food security. These groups are also urging Congress to direct a study to understand what levels of investments are needed to address food security and maintain U.S. competitiveness.
Drew wants to encourage consumers to get educated on how ag research has an impact on everyone, not just farmers like him. “It should matter because right now there’s a disconnect between where food comes from and how they get into the hands of consumers,” Drew said. “Our generation is more worried about the origin of their food and whether it was ethically or sustainably grown. If consumers want to feel connected to their food, it’s important for them to learn more about ag production and advocate for how ag research dollars are spent.”