Wassenaar and a handful of farmer members under their Iowa Corn Promotion Board had agreed to host a group of journalists mostly from the developing world to talk to us about the effect of scientific advancements on their farms.
He was happy to show off his relatively good yield despite the short rains that preceded record drought and record flooding episodes that hit the US over the last year.
Over the past few decades, Wassenaar and his colleagues have achieved a dramatic increase in their rain-fed maize and corn yields thanks to the adoption of modern farming practices including the use of hybrids, genetically modified seeds that not only yield higher but also require less herbicide and as well as being resistant to drought and other hash weather conditions. Other farmers in Iowa also attribute the increase in yield to the adoption of soil conservation practices such as No-Till that have reduced soil erosion and loss of fertile soils.
“Thirty years ago, my father would only afford to get about 1.5 tones of maize per acre. We have been able to triple the yield thanks to better seeds, better soil conservation techniques,” remarked Wassenaar. He attributed that tremendous increase in yield to his early adoption of agricultural innovations, particularly new hybrids and genetically modified crops that have increased yields, minimized impact of pests and contributed to soil fertility through reduced tillage.
With the adoption of agricultural innovations like hybrids, herbicide-resistant plants, farmers in this part of the world have been able to deploy even more intelligent machines to help them spray weeds using round-up ready varieties and be able to harvest crops much more easily than before.
The use of round-up ready maize and soya ensures that farmers spray their fields just once every season. In addition, seed companies have developed varieties that are easy to harvest with machines like combine harvesters.
Thanks to the agricultural innovations, coupled with high level of organization under the cooperative movement, Iowa farmers produced 62.8 million metric tones of maize in a single planting season of 2011, which is more than the combined total maize production of Africa.
The yield boom coupled with lower production costs, have not only benefited the farmers, they have helped to lower the cost of food for American people, helped to provide feed supplies for the animal industry that has enabled American farmers to tap into the changing dietary needs of a growing number of Asian middle class population.
As Roger Zylstra, another maize farmer from Iowa noted, the widespread adoption of no-till technology, which is made possible by the use of intelligent herbicide-resistant crops, have increased soil fertility and stability and hence boosted output.
During the week, prominent leaders including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at the Norman Borlaug dialogue this week, called for the emergency of young leaders especially in Africa to adopt new technologies that can move the continent forward and help overcome hunger and poverty.
With climate change threatening to further complicate agriculture in Africa, America’s agricultural transformation offers some clues on how Africa can address challenges such as drought, crop pests and water stresses using proven scientific means.
Many however strongly believe that while America’s large-scale monoculture farming has served American people relatively well, it has had a number of flaws and should not be transplanted into Africa.
Anita Foster, a consultant with Mosaic, which is one of the major fertiliser producers in the United States, for instance cited the heavy use of fertilizers and chemicals by many American farmers as having contributed to pollution and loss of biodiversity.
She also criticizes the high level of mechanization on American farms as a big contributor to unemployment in America.
While the development community has in recent years increased focus on improving the productive capacity of the African small holder farmer, consensus seems to be emerging; that small holder farmers need to adopt improved seeds, optimise the use of fertilizers and farm equipment in a sustainable way if the continent is to face up to the challenges of weather and rapid demand for food.