Hybrids, Fertilizer & Irrigation

Sometimes, a new idea or technology will be introduced and exist on its own. If the idea works, it will be used. If it doesn’t, it will be forgotten. But there are other times when a new idea will be picked up, used and adapted by scientists in entirely different fields. When that happens, revolutions can occur. That’s what happened with several of the new agricultural technologies after World War II.


During the 1930s, the brand new technology was the science of hybrid plants, specifically corn. In the 1940s, fertilizer exploded, effective chemical pesticides were introduced, and thousands of new irrigation wells were drilled, particularly in the Midwest and plains. Each of these technologies had their own disciplines, scientists and practitioners. But in the 1940s and the decades following, these different disciplines came together and borrowed ideas from each other. The result was huge increases in crop yields that wouldn’t have been possible with only one or two of the technologies. The catalysts for the change were the hybrid crop breeders. At first, they had taken advantage of “hybrid vigor” to give farmers in varying soil and moisture conditions better results. But as more and more farmers put in irrigation systems, as they began putting down specific amounts of nutrients, and as they began to use better insecticides and herbicides, the crop scientists realized they needed to breed their crops to take advantage of different and more predictable conditions. Stan Jensen was a crop scientist for Pioneer Hi-bred Seed Company. Stan says he began breeding corn varieties to take advantage of new technologies like irrigation. “When I first came to Nebraska,” he says, “my direction was to work on drought-resistance in corn… Well, irrigation came into the picture… So we would pick hybrids that would do well under irrigation. Plant densities increased because under irrigation you could plant thicker.” Hybrid varieties were introduced to take advantage of specific rates of fertilizer applications. Herbicides, of course, are designed to kill specific types of weeds, but most herbicides also put stress on the desirable crops as well. Plant geneticists worked hard to develop varieties that would stand up better under herbicide stress. chenaultIrrigation had effects on other technologies, as well. Plants will make better use of fertilizer if they have enough water. In fact, Jim Chenault points out that, without irrigation, he might not be willing to spend money on fertilizer or pesticides in the first place. “Without it [irrigation], well like this year, you’d have nothing [no crops because of a dry year]. With it, even if it rains, it still pays for itself because you know it’s going to rain. The knowledge that you can plant heavy, fertilize heavy – because you will have the water if you need it – is worth a lot.” This synergy of technologies has lead to an explosion of productivity on the average American farm that has outpaced the rest of the economy. Historian Bruce Gardner in American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century charts in great detail the developments that caused productivity to almost triple. Around 1940, he writes, “U.S. agriculture became able to increase its output of crops and livestock per unit of inputs at a substantially faster sustained rate than had been seen before in our history (and at a faster rate than in the U.S. nonfarm economy). This accelerated rate of growth was maintained throughout the last half of the twentieth century.”


Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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