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There's Nothing Wrong With A 21st Century Farm

This post was originally published on Forbes on February 2, 2016.

Guest post written by Brian Scott who farms just over 2,200 acres in Indiana with his father and grandfather where they raise corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat.

With agriculture being one of our oldest pursuits, and most of the U.S. population being one or more generations away fromthe day-to-day life of farming, it’s easy to see why some romanticized views of farming persist still today.

  1. Some think most farms still operate much the same way they did in the 1950s.
  2. Some believe that farms should go back to operating that way.

Well, time and technology march on for all industries — even agriculture. Although the work ethic, pride, and focus on family hasn’t changed much, the tools we farmers use have changed a lot over the generations. Farmers today work in a high tech space. Farmers have had access to tractors with an automatic steering capability for nearly 20 years now. Perfectly repeatable passes from auto steer are just the basis for a host of other technologies. When a tractor, sprayer or other implement knows where it is and where it has been, it can shut off seed meters or nozzles whenever they overlap with an area previously covered.

For example, my planter is 24 rows wide, but it can click on or off rows automatically as needed on turn rows or irregular borders. The same goes for spraying and fertilizing. And rather than applying blanket, single rates of inputs over a field, I can create a map of prescribed rates tailored to management zones of a seed or fertilizer, which when loaded either by USB or now wirelessly into my tractor adjusts those rates as equipment rolls over the field.

Drones are becoming all the rage. Agriculture is expected to be the largest user and investor in commercial drones in the near future. I have had a drone for two years, and I just got a new one a few weeks ago. An aerial view of a crop offers a much better view of my fields than driving by in my pickup or even walking. Because of the drone, I am actually walking off the fields more often because I can see problems with it that are easily missed from the ground level.

Genetically modified crops (GMOs) also are at our disposal if we need to use them. I use GMO seeds on my farm to help me reduce my environmental impact. Genetic engineering is a great tool, giving us more options to fend off weeds and pests, and as a result, our fuel and equipment needs have decreased. It’s a rare event that we spray insecticide on a field anymore.

The collection and study of data both small and large is now entrenched in the business of farming, with digital recording of tasks performed in farm fields nearly ubiquitous across row crop farms in the United States. In the spring when I drive onto a field with my planter full of seeds, the process of collecting that season’s data also begins. I’m not just placing seeds in the soil. The self-steering tractor uses its roof-mounted GPS receiver to track how many seeds I’m putting down and what variety of seed is in each row. And that is just a sampling of the stats we record and map. Fertilizer and pesticide applications can also be tracked with this technology on board a modern farm machine. For instance, I can control rates of application before equipment enters a field. At the end of the season when we harvest the crops, we also collect a lot of data. In fact, I can look at planting or other data from earlier in the year while a yield map and reports of the same field is generated in real time on my iPad, all while I sit in the driver’s seat of my combine. And because that combine drives itself, I spend the mental energy formerly dedicated to steering to monitoring all facets of the harvest process and making adjustments as needed. Since corn and soybean prices are nearly half of what they were a couple of years ago, every bushel and every cost needs to be scrutinized even more closely. With the digitization of farming, we aren’t just making decisions on what we are pretty sure happened in a field. Now we know, and we have it on record for years to come.

We still get dirty, work long hours, and hope for good weather, but now we also think about our next smartphone purchase or if a fully autonomous tractor might be a future investment. Occasionally, people will ask something like, “This isn’t your grandpa’s farm, is it?” Actually it is. Grandpa just turned 89 and still works everyday alongside Dad and me. Just imagine the changes he’s seen in a lifetime of farming. And through technology, Grandpa, Dad, and I know more about the land we tend than my Great Grandpa could have ever imagined.