Education, farmers’ willingness to learn remain keys to the success of agriculture

One of the most profound misconceptions I’ve had the pleasure of disproving over the years is that farmers are resistant to change, or that they’re not eager to learn new things.

I’ve always found just the opposite to be true. This was never made clearer to me than when I recently interviewed Randy Dowdy, Georgia’s corn yield champion for the past two years.

Randy calls himself a student of corn production, and it’s an accurate self-appraisal. Having taught at the college level, I could only hope for a student or two with his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

And it’s an unselfish quest for knowledge. Sure, he’s glad to make top yields and enjoy the fruits of his labor, but he wants to share what he learns with others, especially those who have been told all these years Southeastern corn growers can’t possibly compete with those in the Midwest. He has proven the adage wrong, and he wants to help other farmers do the same.

This past season, Randy smashed Georgia’s state corn yield record with an average of 364 bushels per acre. The year before, he made a high of 279 bushels per acre, but knew there was room for improvement.

It becomes even more evident to me how open farmers are to learning new things whenever I write about those like Randy. Almost immediately, whenever a story such as his is published and posted on our website, the calls start coming in from other farmers, wanting to know more.

It’s always a reminder that we’re doing an important service here, and it reaffirms what I’ve always known about farmers — that they never lose the desire for learning new and better ways of doing things.

During our interview, Randy made the excellent point that the genetic potential of modern corn hybrids is 600 to 800 bushels per acre, so why should farmers be satisfied with making less than half of that?

Many in agriculture are asking the same question, not just of corn, but of all crops, and some are saying that the future of feeding the world’s growing population depends upon how quickly we find the answers.

In a journal article written by professors from Stanford University and the University of Nebraska, “Crop Yield Gaps: Their Importance, Magnitudes, and Causes,” the authors says that future crop yields and global food security may well hinge on the ability of farmers around the world to narrow the gap between current yields and yield potential ceilings, especially as progress in the latter may slow because of climate change and diminishing returns in breeding.

Future trajectories of food prices, food security, and cropland expansion are closely linked to future average crop yields in the major agricultural regions of the world, and because the maximum possible yields achieved in farmers’ fields might level off or even decline in many regions over the next few decades, reducing the gap between average and potential yields is critical, they say.

In most major irrigated wheat, rice, and corn systems, yields appear to be at or near 80 percent of yield potential, with no evidence of yields having exceeded this threshold to date, states the authors. A fundamental constraint in these systems appears to be uncertainty in growing season weather, so tools to address this uncertainty likely would reduce gaps.

Otherwise, say the authors, short-term prospects for yield gains in irrigated agriculture appear grim without increased yield potential. “Average yields in rain-fed systems are commonly 50 percent or less of yield potential, suggesting ample room for improvement,” according to the article.

Raising average yields above 80 percent of potential appears possible, but only with technologies that either substantially reduce the uncertainties farmers face in assessing soil and climate conditions or dynamically respond to changes in these conditions, according to the article. These technologies would include things such as sensor-based nutrient and water management.

If there’s a way to bridge this yield gap, I’m confident that farmers like Randy Dowdy and our researchers and Extension personnel at the county, state and national levels will find it.

I was taught from an early age that education is the great equalizer, that regardless of your social or financial standing, education could lift you to new heights. In today’s complex information age, that’s truer than ever before, and it’ll certainly be the key to the continued success of U.S. agriculture.

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