Mike Rankin

Most people, organizations, and other entities like to make progress, a happy and positive word. Progress is also a battleground.

The reasons that progress can be so controversial, as I see it, are three-fold. First is simply a general subjective belief about what direction defines progress . . . trade war or stay the course, big farm or small farm, designated hitter or pitcher hits. You get the idea.

The second reason why progress elicits so many disagreements is the fear of the unknown and how to deal with the ramifications of change. For example, cellphones have progressed to “necessity” status for the vast majority of people, but we also know more people will be killed while driving because users are texting or dialing rather than watching the road. So, do we eliminate cellphones to save lives or do we simply try to abate the problem while allowing the cellphone craze to continue?

Truth be told, cellphones are not the problem. People making bad decisions with the technology are where the blame lies. This same scenario plays out in agriculture time after time.

Let’s look at pest or herbicide resistant transgenic crops, which have been with us now for nearly 30 years. The rub lies in the fact that this technology (or progress) creates the potential for new problems — resistant pests and cross pollination, for example. If a producer chooses to overuse this technology to the point that pest resistance develops, is that a technology problem or human decision-making problem?

The third reason progress causes so much consternation is the matter of how quickly or slowly it’s occurring. Often, the debates center around fixing an existing problem. These are the classic “Is the glass half empty or half full?” arguments. Agricultural interests are engaged in these discussions on a full-time basis. Although we would like life to give us nothing but a full glass, sometimes we need to realize that progress is made as long as we keep pouring.

Are we doing enough to improve our climate change status? What about environmental pollution from fertilizers or manure? Are we making animal welfare a strong enough priority?

The truth is, agriculture can make a strong case that huge gains have been made in all of these areas, at least compared to where we were 25 years ago. But are changes happening fast enough? Clearly, many in the nonfarm public would argue they are not.

What often is not understood by the general public is that we’re dealing with a massive biological system that is inherent with a strong dilution effect. It takes decades and many individuals to create a problem, and it often takes decades and many individual changes to get it fixed. We can’t just do a recall.

Progress is both painful and necessary. At the farm gate, progress is also necessary if you want to stay in business. It can be measured in environmental or sustainability terms, but it most certainly also needs to be measured in terms of profitability.

Fortunately for the forage industry and forage growers in particular, our crop has a bucketful of potential advantages from an environmental standpoint and the same from a profit-driving perspective. It’s pretty easy to defend perennial forages if they are managed correctly. Simply put, our progress is measured in milk and meat per acre.

Here’s wishing you progress in 2020.

This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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