The Information Age Begins
Farmers need information almost as much as they need land, rain, seeds and sun. They are trying to sell products that are of similar quality to those that their neighbor and a producer half way around the world are trying to sell. So knowing when and where a buyer is looking for their product can make the difference between profit and loss.
In the 1940s, an information revolution began that profoundly changed the structure of the agricultural market.
Before the 1940s, information cost a lot to get and location was important. Markets were centralized because of the cost of information. Chicago was the center of grain and livestock trading. New York markets specialized in imported commodities like sugar, coffee and cocoa. Minneapolis and Kansas City focused on hard wheat. Each central market was close to the producing areas. Buyers and sellers flocked there. And by the turn of the 20th Century, the market centers had rail hubs, large newspapers, electricity, telegraph and telephone service.
Local farmers had none of that infrastructure. There were local newspapers in rural towns, but their news and commodity price listings were days, or even weeks old by the time the paper was delivered to a farmer’s house. The primary source for market information for most farmers was a trip to town. The farmer would check prices at the grain elevator, lumberyard, feed store, and other suppliers. It was next to impossible to develop a marketing plan. The farmer would load up his or her crops or livestock, go to town and hope that prices would be good.
The information landscape began to change in the 1940s. The promise of REA was fulfilled as a majority of farms were connected to electric lines. Electricity on the farm meant radio, telephones and eventually television sets were available. About this time, the federal government expanded their collection and dissemination of crop reports, weather and market information.
Now, instead of going to town for market information, the farmer simply turned on the radio at noon and in the evening. He or she could follow price and market developments from trading floors around the country. These market reports became fixtures of early television news in rural areas. If the farmer saw an opportunity, he or she could get on the phone and arrange for trucks to transport the crop to market.
Chicago and the other market centers no longer had a monopoly on market information. Because of this change and changes in transportation and other infrastructures, markets gradually decentralized.
Now, entire industries like meat packing are scattered around the rural Midwest, close to the suppliers. Livestock producers can compare prices from a number of far-flung markets and decide when and where to sell their product. The same is true with most agricultural commodities.