Progress or …?

One of my best sources of information in the agronomic field has been the USDA Yearbooks of Agriculture. Having access to studies from 130 years ago up until the end of publishing in 1992 has been a boon for my education. It is hard not to notice, however, the stark changes in the writing styles over those years, and the perceived shift in the target audience based on the tone of the writing. Here I will present a contrast of two randomly selected excerpts to illustrate my point.

To effectively show this phenomenon, I will start with a passage from the 1939 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture. After opening to a random page, I see the article “The Problem of Income and its Distribution“:

Attaining the goal of adequate nutrition for all persons at all levels of income is only a part of the problem of attaining a higher consumption of all goods and services. It may be examined from several different viewpoints so far as raising the purchasing power and real incomes of at least the lower third of the Nation’s families and single individuals is concerned.
Even if it is assumed that family food expenditures would be made on the basis of sound selection of foods at minimum cost, most of the low-income families – especially those with incomes under $750 a year – probably could not afford economical fair diets at a level of food prices such as existed in 1936. Almost 32 percent of the families and single individuals in the Nation received incomes under $750 in 1935-36. Over 27 percent of the Nation’s families – exclusive of single individuals – realized incomes under $750. This low-income group needs additional purchasing power if it is to have a fair chance of achieving an economical fair diet.


Marius Farioletti, 1939 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture

Moving to just 30 years later, I open to a random page in the 1969 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture and am presented with “All About Meat, That Key Item in Food Buying, Meal Planning“:

Very few people realize that there are enough different kinds and cuts of meat available in today’s supermarkets so a homemaker could prepare a different meat dish for her family every day of the year. This variety should make meat buying and meal planning a real pleasure.
Since meat commands a large share of today’s food dollar, the consumer should know as much as possible about its selection and preparation.
As assurance to consumers that their meat is wholesome, all meat and meat products prepared in plants which make shipments into other States must be federally inspected. This assures us that the meat comes from healthy animals, is processed under sanitary conditions, is properly labeled and packaged, and it is not adulterated or contaminated. A round stamp identifies meat which has passed this inspection.

Olive M. Batcher, Charles E. Murphey, 1969 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture

The 1939 article goes on to define income maldistribution, and gives possible causes, solutions, and workarounds. The 1969 article goes on to describe all the different cuts of meat, what they look like, how they are brought to market, and how they can be cooked.

The styles and tones of these two excerpts are starkly different. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the later article seem as if the author or the intended audience is expected to be of a lower level of education. The earlier article supplies data-driven arguments whereas the later one tells an anecdotal story. It appears as the difference between a scholarly paper and a newspaper article. This is not a unique comparison, as every Yearbook after 1963 is written in this new manner. Only 30 years had passed between these two examples, which leads me to the question – what happened?

My theory – The Green Revolution. By this time (the early 60s) The Green Revolution was in full swing. Whole sections of the country had already been ‘upgraded’ to new modes of agricultural production. The farmer no longer needed to solve the problems of how to produce abundant nutritious food on their farm, as the scientists had now worked out a blanket solution to all agricultural problems. Herbicide, fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide, and dwarfed plant varieties that performed well when doused with these chemicals, but without that treatment would falter and fail. I think the publication of the Yearbook transitioned to consumer articles because they felt the farmer no longer needed to hear what progress had been made in agricultural science over the last year, as they had an army of agents ready and willing to ‘educate’ them on what pruducts and services to buy to increase their levels of production. The farmer transitioned from being our base of production to just another consumer, relying upon raw materials from some foreign place. We must re-think this paradigm.

Agriculture begins in the soil at your feet. Find a way to support a local farmer who is producing food you would want your children to eat.

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