One of the most critical decisions that a farmer makes is what crops to grow on the land he or she has available. For some farmers, that’s a quick decision because the land, climate, tradition, infrastructure and economic conditions all support one dominant crop. For example, in the South cotton was king because it grew well in the long, hot summers, because the farmers understood how to manage it and because the cotton gins, markets and transportation systems were all nearby.

For other farmers, there may be a variety of crops adapted to their local ecology, and they may wrestle each year with the decision of what crops to plant on what pieces of ground. Here are some of the factors that can affect cropping decisions –

  • Climate and growing seasons. The long time period and high average temperatures between the last frost of the spring and first frost of the fall allow cotton and rice to grow well in the south. The short, cool growing season of North Dakota is better for spring wheat and oats.
  • The investments farmers make often lock them into a certain cropping patterns. For instance, once a farmer buys a corn planter, he or she will probably plant corn on most of the land to get a good return on that investment. Mechanization encourages specialization.
  • Research also encourages specialization. Each new university study makes it possible to increase the yield of the crop studied, but it means that the farmer has to know a lot more detailed information. No one farmer can understand every detail about the growth cycle of every potential crop, so he or she will naturally learn all there is to know about one or two crops and choose to plant a limited number of crops.
  • On the other hand, there is an entire field of research into the advantages of crop rotation. Farmers, particularly in the Midwest, are told that planting corn one year, followed by soybeans the next, and possibly legumes the next will naturally keep pests under control and fix nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil.
  • Government programs will make some crops more attractive financially than others from year to year.
  • Official predictions about the weather or what crops may be planted in other parts of the country or the world will influence expectations about prices for different crops at the end of the growing season.
  • The infrastructure that grows up around various crops (no pun intended) will also affect cropping decisions. For instance, the Midwest has lots of elevators, grain merchants, barges and trucks ready to handle crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. The West has warehouses and shipping facilities for vegetables.
  • Tradition and community norms. Often it’s hard for one farmers to try a new crop when all his or her neighbors, friends and relatives are used to planting another crop.

But there were still changes in cropping patterns in the 1950s and 60s.

For instance, fewer farms grew more corn on fewer acres by the end of the 60s. This increase in productivity reflected a huge increase in the average yields for corn on each acre planted. Going back to 1899, there has been a steady decline in the number of acres planted in corn, from around 95 million acres in 1909 to 52.5 million acres in 1969. But the total corn grown shot up from 2.6 billion bushels to over 4.4 billion bushels.

This huge productivity increase was accomplished, obviously, by an increase in yield per acre – from 28 bushels per acre in 1909 to over 84.5 bushels per acre in 1969. In fact, there was a 20-bushel-per-acre increase between 1964 and 1969 alone. Better hybrids, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation all contributed to that increase.

Soybeans also registered major changes. As we’ve seen, soybeans got a major push during World War II. That push came to fruition in the 60s when production topped one billion bushels for the first time in the U.S. in 1969.

There were similar increases in yield for most major crops –

  • Wheat yields went from 12.5 bushels per acre in 1899 to 29.3 in 1969.
  • Hay harvested went from 1.28 tons per acre in 1899 to 2.1 tons in 1969.
  • Cotton went from 0.33 bales per acre 1909 to 1.06 bales per acre in 1964.
  • Sorghum production went from 10.8 bushels per acre in 1909 to 52.7 bushels per acre in 1969.

Beulah Gocke InterviewSometimes, farmers immigrating from one part of the country to another – or one part of the world to another – will introduce new crops to a region. Beulah Gocke’s family moved from Nebraska to Utah because they were having a hard time during the drought years of the 1950s. Beulah’s family started raising sweet corn varieties imported from Iowa because, “They had very poor quality of sweet corn,” she says. “We ordered some Iowa Chief hybrid sweet corn in, and it was a huge ear… And that was my son’s college money for his first year to college.”

Beulah has also seen first hand the pressure to specialize. “It used to be you had to diversify to balance out your income and utilize all of your land,” she says. “But now, if you’re equipped to raise grain with the larger equipment and the big dollar investment, you want to raise grain. You don’t want to stop at 5:00 o’clock and interrupt your routine to go take care of your livestock.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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