14 September 2013

These aren't your father's farming techniques

Excerpts from an interesting article at Pacific Standard:
Technically, Hunter Fincher is driving a 10-ton tractor as it rumbles over a bare patch of western-Tennessee farmland. You wouldn’t know that from looking at him though. Fincher is sitting in a well-padded chair inside a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned, XM-radio-equipped cabin atop the machine, enjoying the view of the lush green hill country around us. No hands on the wheel, no foot on the gas. Occasionally he glances at an iPad-size touch-screen that’s charting our progress...

Fincher’s tractor is equipped with the latest technology from John Deere, the world’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturer. Guided by satellite and emitting the occasional R2-D2 beep, the 10-foot-high behemoth automatically grinds its way up one furrow and down the next. The tractor is towing an array of seed dispensers mounted on boom arms, each poised over furrows precisely 30 inches apart. The machine’s on-board computer system adjusts the rate at which the dispensers drop corn seeds to match the productivity of the specific patch of dirt we’re passing over...

Increasingly, America’s millions of acres of farmland are being mapped, analyzed, planted, and harvested by computer-controlled machines that are directed much more by vast quantities of information than a plowman’s steady hand...

Today, combines equipped with sensors and accurate-to-the-inch GPS systems track the quantity and moisture content of crops as they’re harvested. Sophisticated soil analysis and aerial photography give detailed insights into field conditions. Computer-equipped tractors and spraying machines use “yield maps” based on all this data to micromanage fields, varying the application rate of seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides yard by yard. Growers—especially of the row crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat that make up the bulk of America’s agricultural output—are adopting these technologies fast. Two-thirds of the farmers surveyed last year by the American Soybean Association reported using auto-steering tractors or yield maps, or both...

The goal of all this is efficiency. Seeds matched to specific soils should yield bigger harvests. Tracking precisely where seeds are dropped or fertilizer is sprayed cuts down on wasteful overlapping of areas that have already been treated. The gear required for all this isn’t cheap. An autosteering system alone costs several thousand dollars, and a full suite of precision tech can run $50,000 or more. But that investment can pay for itself within a few years. Taken together, precision techniques can boost a farmer’s bottom line by as much as 15 percent...

Digitally driven farming has its downsides, however. It increases the pressure on farmers to get big or get out. And there’s another issue: While fields have always been vulnerable to pests and blight, they are now subject to the vulnerabilities of the digital world. “We haven’t had any problems with data leaking out yet,” says Marbury. “But when it does, it’s gonna be a mess.” 
All this change within the lifespan of one generation.  My mother (age 95) remembers driving a team of two horses when she was 8 years old.  She wore a huge bonnet in the summer sun, so that neighbors said it looked "like a big hat was driving the rig," cultivating and cross-cultivating (!) the corn fields.

Via The Dish.


  1. I think this is insane. There's just something wrong with being so far removed from the Earth. I suppose there are a million reasons I could list, but mostly it just, instinctively, feels completely wrong to have a computer driven tractor.

  2. Curiously, this seems to also be true within the United States Navy (and possibly other navies around the world) in that the individual sailor is becoming increasingly removed from the sea. That could be a by-product of modern technology, or it could be something altogether different. Who knows.

  3. Totally insane for technologizing farming so much that you can't even say it's farming anymore. My husband and I work on our little five-acre farmstead, working towards being as self-sufficient as possible, with excess to sell at local farmer's markets. It's hard, hard work and a tough life to choose, but there are so many days that the hard work is it's own reward, never mind eating what we grow or having folks tell us that what we do grow is so much yummier than what they get in the grocery store.

  4. As the population explodes, there has to be a way to feed everyone. I am very glad we have the technology to be able to efficiently produce crops.


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