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Innovation: The story of our past, the hope for our future
Every generation of farm families and rural residents can remember at least one major technological revolution that significantly changed how we farm and how we live. Many of you reading this remember when electricity first came to the farm. Others of us can remember when Dad first planted hybrid seed corn. Still others can remember how the first computer in the house looked. Innovation has always been the force that has driven agriculture forward.

Now, granted, not everyone is pleased with innovation. For some folks, changing the way we do things is disconcerting. For others, increased reliance on technology goes against their self-reliant philosophy. Yet, despite the critics, innovation has marched forward. That march has increasingly become a run as the pace of technological innovation has quickened. Today, many fear that the pace of technological innovation has surpassed our ability to understand and adapt to the change.

Yet, innovation is our hope for the future. Without it, we will not be able to produce enough food and fiber to feed a hungry world. Without it, we will not have the energy to run our economy and industries. Without it, small farmers have no chance of finding a way to make a living in a big-scale, commodity-driven world.

But innovation is not something that just happens. Political, economic, and social forces can kill or foster innovation. Many Midwestern states are facing this choice right now. They can put polices in place that promote agricultural innovation or enact restrictions that prevent innovation and growth.

The newly created Indiana State Department of Agriculture is a case study in promoting innovation. It has not only instituted programs that encourage agricultural innovation, but has created a venture capital fund to bring those innovations to the marketplace. As Director Andy Miller told me, Indiana farmers will be the first to benefit when innovation occurs within the state.

There are many in the farm and rural community that are opposed to this atmosphere of innovation. They are concerned about the consequences and the uncertainty of a future that will look so much different than the past. While caution, skepticism, and prudence are good things to have, they must not be allowed to paralyze us from planning a future direction for our industry and communities. Keep in mind that innovation is a two-edged sword. It can cause problems, but it can also solve problems.

No-till farming was an innovation that many farmers resisted. Yet, its widespread adoption has saved our environment, improved our drinking water, and kept US farmland among the most productive in the world. Similarly, biomass ethanol production may seem like a far-fetched concept today, but a decade or two from now it may be a mainstay of Midwestern agriculture. The traditions of tomorrow are built on the innovations of today.

This farm news was published in the Sept. 27, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.