In the post-World War II era, farmers witnessed
revolutionary advances in agricultural technology — new machinery, seeds, pesticides, fertilizers,
resulting in greater efficiency, greater productivity. During the 1950s and 60s, American agriculture’s
biggest problem was what to do with the huge surpluses of grain. All that changed in the
1970s as the massive stockpiles were drawn down, sometimes to precariously low levels.
As a result, commodity prices rose. Then in the early 1970s, poor weather conditions results
in diminished yields overseas. Demand for U.S. agricultural products exploded. The Soviet
Union negotiated a multiyear contract for wheat and feed grains in 1972. And within
a span of two years, wheat priced doubled, corn prices tripled. Suddenly, America’s unprecedented
ability to produce food looked more like a blessing than a burden. And there was serious
talk that the U.S. would not be able to keep up.
In 1973, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz responded by calling upon American
farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and he told them “to get big or get out.” Producers
took his words to heart and the race to feed the world was on. With production in high
gear and prices continuing to climb, 1973 and ’74 were prosperous years in rural America.
And for the first time since record-keeping began, per capita farm income actually exceeded
that of urban Americans. Life was good. November 15, 1976 — “Finished combining corn
tonight. The new bin is full. We really feel for the first time there is enough money for
everything. The bills are getting paid. The farm is half paid for. — Farm wife, southern