In 1993, the average corn yield in the U.S. amounted to 100.7 bushels per acre. That number grew to 175 bushels per acre by 2020. The steady increase in corn yields began in the late 1930s, when yields averaged well below 30 bushels per acre, and accelerated in the 1950s. Since then, yields have been increasing by an average of almost 2 bushels per acre each year.
The National Corn Growers Association’s National Corn Yield Contest, held every December, measures corn yields from America’s most innovative farmers. The contest showcases the potential of cutting-edge farming techniques developed through extensive research and experimentation to improve food production.
The 2020 winner, Don Stall from Michigan, produced a yield of 476.9 bushels per acre. That was over two and a half times the national average—an especially impressive achievement given suboptimal weather conditions, wildfires and the global pandemic that challenged U.S. farmers in 2020. The world record yield for a corn farmer is 619.2 bushels per acre, set just one year earlier by David Hula from Virginia. Hula has set the world record four times, consistently finding ways to raise his yields.
Corn is not the only crop showing significant and consistent improvements in yields. Global production of wheat, for example, hit a new record of 761.6 million tons (Mt) in 2019-20 and was projected to reach an even higher total of 764.9 Mt in the 2020-21 season.
Americans are not the only leaders in food productivity. A massive bumper harvest put Australia on pace for a 60 percent year-on-year increase in overall crop production in 2020, despite the wildfires and drought that plagued the nation for the first few months of last year.
While overall weather conditions do matter, innovation has undoubtedly been key to agricultural gains. David Hula, for example, has developed a detailed process for planting and harvesting crops, which uses variable-rate technology in conjunction with a strip-till system that helps him to use fertilizer precisely and efficiently. New technology also allows Hula to insulate and protect his crops to ensure consistent output.
More broadly, the agricultural world has seen a series of promising breakthroughs, including genome editing, autonomous farming robots, vertical farming and more. Most of these breakthroughs have the effect of making farming easier, more predictable, more efficient and less dependent on the whims of nature.
Agricultural advances fall well in line with Andrew McAfee’s description of dematerialization – a process of using fewer resources in order to produce more goods and services – which he outlined in his 2019 book More from Less. If the current trends continue, the potential for land-sparing is significant.
Increased efficiency could also stimulate further specialization, thus meeting global demand with fewer farmers and freeing up tens of millions of people worldwide to pursue other careers. Just as the Industrial Revolution largely removed the burden of agricultural labor from most Westerners, efficiency gains are likely to result in reduction of farm labor in the developing world.
Some worry that if corn yields continue to increase while the demand for corn and corn-derivative products, like ethanol, remains stagnant, eventually there will be a diminished incentive for corn farmers to continue innovating. That will most likely provide an impetus for corn farmers to come up with new corn product derivatives, apply innovative agricultural techniques to other crops, or simply leave the market.
As corn and other crops become easier and easier to produce, the agricultural labor market will likely experience structural changes, and those will be worth observing. More importantly, given the way that prospects for land-sparing are continuing to develop, we should remain conscious of the ways in which land is used as it continues to be returned to nature.