Four Farmers Project, Week 2: An Advocate for Technology

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That’s a lot of money. “But with two more good rains, one in July and one in August, it could be a bin-buster year, 175 bushels an acre.” Like most farmers, Hargens can do the math in his head, as if he’s been sitting in his tractor all morning playing the numbers over and over to himself. He’s got half his crop—175,000 bushels—already contracted at $5.50 a bushel. It’s low by this week’s price. But he smiles squarely at me. “Nobody ever went broke making a profit.” If a good harvest comes in he can expect to average $6 a bushel. That’s a gross revenue of $1,050,000 on input costs of $350,000. That’s $700,000 to take to the bank on a 1,000-acre cornfield.

Dale Hargens is a modern farmer, a true believer in the power of science and technology. He plants genetically modified seed from Monsanto and marvels at the increased yields. He sprays to keep a clean field. He says corn-based ethanol isn’t the final answer to the nation’s energy crisis, but be believes ethanol is getting a bum rap. “The problem is the cost of diesel fuel, and speculators, not ethanol.”

In this era, when the use of petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides, insecticides, genetically modified seeds, and the industrial methods of agriculture have come in for such heavy criticism, it is difficult to remember that Hargens is squarely in the tradition of liberal farm advocates that includes Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt, and South Dakota’s own George McGovern. Hargens is Democratic Minority Leader of the South Dakota House of Representatives and an Obama supporter. But standing on the sidewalk outside the local café in Miller, South Dakota, he seems to sense that he is a dying breed. “If I didn’t farm with my daughter Andrea, I would have retired by now.”

The promise of high yields and high prices has driven up the price of land and land rents so high that no young person can ever expect to buy their own farm. Hargens passed some of his mother’s land to his daughter to help her start. “Get land from your family, or go corporate. That’s the only way a young farmer can get started today.” It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, and he’s has been in the field since 4 A.M. I ask him what he’s going to do next. “Go home and take a nap,” he says, with a big smile on his face.

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