LAST WEEK'S issue of Time magazine had, as its main story, a feature about American farming. It has been a very good year For farmers in the United States with bumper harvests and, better still. prices have been sufficiently high for most of them to do very well.
But the main point of the article was the steady trend towards ever larger farms. This has meant that farms of well over 1,000 acres arc now the norm, with many being at least twice that size.
This has been combined with a decrease in the numbers of people working the land, a far greater degree of mechanisation and the wholesale use of fertilisers and pesticides to maintain high yields of crops.
Predictably Time welcomed such trends and emphasised the point that a strong food export market gives the United States considerable extra power and status in world affairs.
The trends described in the story can, of course, be shown to operate in most rich countries, including Britain. We too are witnessing the steady amalgamation of farms into ever larger units, a continual drift from the countryside and the greatly increased use of advanced technology in crop and animal production.
Two interesting comments can be made about all this. One is that we should remember that in terms of world-wide farming practice, industialised agriculture is still relatively unimportant.
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the prairies are the world's bread-basket. But the reality of the matter is that most of the world's people actually get their food from subsistence farming — they grow it themselves. This means that there is a danger in concentrating too much on those systems which work well in developed countries.
Quite apart from the problems which might eventually arise from the use of such energyintensive methods of food production, the fact of the matter is that such technology is irrelevant to the immediate needs of the small farmers who produce most of the world's food.
The other point is of a more domestic nature in that we now have two totally opposed trends
apparent in countries like Britain. Just as farming methods get more technologically orientated and farms get larger, so we see other people desperately keen to develop small-holdings, allotments and even small back-yard vegetable gardens.
The best-selling agriculture books are now all about smallscale endeavours like organic gardening and the delightfully named "house-cow".
As fast as our muss-produced food becomes more bland and tasteless so more people are returning to the more effective methods of small-scale and labour-intensive production in order to get more wholesome food, the production of which they themselves control.
As farmers use ever larger fields and grow the same crops on the same land year after year, so the newcomers are busily rotating and inter-cropping their plants on tiny parcels of land.
As farm labourers leave the farm for the factories (there are now more tractors than people on British farms) so organisations like the Rural Resettlement Group start up, and people get more interested in growing their own food.
I suppose that at some stage
there will be deadlock the irresistible force of rural resettlement will meet the immoveable object of the large farm.
What will happen then is anyone's guess, but there is one thing for certain: features like the one in Time magazine are only telling half of the story of what is happening to farming today.