Milton Orr, director of the University of Tennessee Extension Service office in Greene County, has had a front-row view of local agriculture for years. It’s a view that sometimes brings surprises.
He experienced one of those recently while the pandemic was going strong and meetings were done by computer. A “virtual meeting” was coming up that would involve farmers, some of them no longer young.
Aware of the perception that many seniors shun computers, Orr wasn’t optimistic that some of the oldest farmers would take part in that online gathering.
His pessimism was misplaced.
“When I looked at the faces on the computer screen, I saw some people I wasn’t sure would even own a computer, much less learn to use something like Zoom,” he said. It astounded him.
So much for the idea that rural senior citizens are unwilling to adapt and learn the proverbial “new tricks!”
Tempering Orr’s surprise somewhat was an awareness that American farmers have embraced technology and agricultural science to their advantage.
In fact, Orr says these days that “the biggest boon to agriculture in the last 50 to 75 years has been technology.”
Largely because of agricultural technology and the science behind it, Americans enjoy what Orr says is demonstrably the “cheapest and safest food supply in the world.”
Both of those factors, cost and safety, impact consumers’ food-buying decisions, Orr says, but studies and surveys have shown that food safety is the top concern cited by consumers.
The safety of the American food supply is a pride point for Orr.
“Agriculture has done a wonderful job of addressing food safety,” he noted.
Orr points out also that agriculture involves far more than food.
“Everything we wear or eat goes back to agriculture,” he said.
For him, what distinguishes agriculture from hobbyist farming is that its goal is production, usually of food or fiber.
On the food production side, agriculture has grown ever more efficient, again thanks to technology, Orr notes.
Agriculture in America feeds a population about twice as big as it was in the middle of the 20th century, and does so with fewer land resources than existed all those many years back.
That couldn’t happen if not for innovations such as crop hybrids, and on the animal side of the equation, scientifically guided breeding and genetic technologies, Orr asserts.
In the period from about 1920 through 1950, Orr said, about 30 to 60 bushels of corn could be produced on an acre of land.
Today that same acre can produce about 350 bushels.
In reference to beef cattle, Orr’s personal specialty as a raiser of registered Angus cattle, he says that a beef farmer herd is able to feed twice as many people as a herd of the same size fed 70 or so years ago, while using a third of the land and and less than half the water. And these modern farmers achieve this while reducing their carbon footprint more than 68 percent.
Due to scientifically based breeding, beef cattle can be raised that produce more meat, which is why a modern cow herd can feed more people than could a herd of the same size from decades back.
Dairy cattle, unlike beef cattle, are bred to produce more milk rather than more meat, which is why culled dairy cattle that outlive their productive lives and are sent to slaughter, usually are used to produce potted meat products and so on that do not require high-quality beef.
What about dairy? How does Orr perceive the current state of dairy farming in Greene County, which once boasted one of the most thriving dairy industries in the state, but now is in decline?
Dairy continues to struggle, according to Orr, particularly smaller dairies with herds of maybe 12 or 20 cows.
When Orr got his first job in Greene County’s Extension Service, there were more than 400 dairy operations in the county. Now that number is down to about 20, by his estimate.
That was in the 1980s. By the time he became director in the Extension office in 2007, dairy already was seeing changing times, and that has continued.
Can small dairies survive? Orr’s answer is that yes, they probably can, and one key to that is to work cooperatively. One example he cites is dairy operators cooperatively buying commodity feed for several dairy farms rather than only one, and getting the benefit of the bulk-buying discounts.
Something along the same principle can be done with beef cattle when multiple farmers join together to buy vaccines and health treatments cooperatively, sharing the savings.
“They could say, ‘Instead of buying a truckload of cottonseed hulls for my little herd, lets buy 100 truckloads and get it cheaper,’” Orr presented as an example. “Or with vaccines farmers could say, ‘Let’s go together in a group and get enough to vaccinate 2,000 head of cattle, not just my 40 cows. That’s where you get the power of buying in bulk.”
There also are ways to add value to dairy cattle, he says, such as, perhaps, focusing on cattle varieties that produce milk with low lactose impact, and target-marketing the product accordingly.
Orr sees possible potential in the development of farm-based milk processing and marketing … something that sounds almost like a dairy version of craft brewing.
“Make the product attractive,” he said. “That’s value added.”
He is an advocate of “brainstorming” between cooperative farmers with creative minds and imaginative ideas about marketing their product in an environment far different than the one that existed when the local Pet plant was more than a name lingering on an old Greeneville smokestack.
The Greene County Extension office is located on the lower floor of the Greene County governmental office building at 204 N. Cutler Street, in Suite 105. The phone number is 798-1710.
Those who visit that office can identify Milton Orr easily. He’ll be the one with the magnificent mustache, one he has cultivated since 1974.