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Alabama Gulf Coast farm manager Ray Bertolla still recalls old
family accounts of the ribbing his older relatives endured when they became the
first producers in the region to buy a tractor with rubber tires.
Those rubber tires may have seemed foolish to some, but they
played an integral part in a technological revolution, powered by internal
combustion engines, which transformed U.S. farming.
In the late 19th century, it took 35 to 40 hours
of planting and harvesting just to produce 100 bushels of corn, according to an
online fact sheet posted by the National Academy of Engineering. A century
later, producing the same amount of corn required less than 3 hours — much of
it carried out by farmers or employees working in air-conditioned tractors.
A New Kind of Horsepower Primed to Change Farming
Now, one expert believes a new type of horsepower —
analytical horsepower — is primed to change farming once again.
But instead of internal combustion, this transformation will
be powered by on-farm data, which farmers will soon routinely use to make considerably
more accurate and refined farming and business decisions, according to Dr. John Fulton, leader of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s row crops team and
Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering.
Fulton contends that this transformation could not have come
at a more opportune time — a sentiment shared by his colleague, Max Runge, an Extension
Caught in a catch-22
As Runge sees it, farmers over the last decade have been
trapped in a kind of catch-22.
“Farming has become
so efficient and productive that it requires fewer farmers to produce the
commodities to meet our needs,” Runge says.
He contends that farmers, by creating an exceptionally
efficient production system, have become their own worst enemies, because this
enhanced efficiency has also contributed to reduced farm profits.
The steady march of globalization and technological advances
has also contributed, he maintains. Within
this highly efficient, integrated farming system, one bad decision can produce
serious effects throughout a farming operation.
Every Decision Must Follow Intensive Study
“It’s gotten to where every decision has to follow an
intensive study and to be carefully considered before it’s implemented,” says
Kim Wilkins an Alabama Extension regional agent who operates on the Gulf Coast.
“For example, one bad variety selection could mean a wipeout
of the crop from a threat like soybean rust or Hessian flies before the farmers
could even anticipate them,” she says.
In recent years, Runge has seen firsthand how some farmers
have had to work furiously to capture lost ground following a bad farming
Ball Park Strategy: A Bad One
“We’ve had some producers come to us and say, ‘I’m $300,000
in debt and I’ve got to hit a home run,” Runge says, adding that this is
precisely the sort of situation that farmers should studiously work to avoid.
“The luckier ones manage to knock the ball out of the park —often
by selecting the right commodity at just the right time and pricing it to hit the
top of the market,” he says. “But it’s unlikely they’ll stay in business over
the next 3 to 5 years following a game plan like this.”
Runge says the times are pushing producers to develop a new integrated
farming mindset, one that is as much about investing in the future as it is
about being frugal in the present. And
this will involve investing in management strategies and technologies that not only
insulate them against crises— weather events, insect or weed threats, or
economic downturns, for example — but that also better equip them to capitalize
on future opportunities.
A New Farming Approach
Fulton has a term for this too: input stewardship.
“We’re reached the point where input stewardship is not only
critical to production but also to ensuring that we maintain the profits to stay
in business,” he says.
“Yes, you’ve got to look at ways to capture savings and
improve efficiency, because every cent counts. But it’s also as much about farmers
investing on a field-by-field basis and in ways that enable them to derive the optimal
benefits from each field.”
While some of these decisions may not begin paying off until
years down the road, they are no less important to the success of a farming
operation, Fulton says.
But it’s the way in which input stewardship will be combined
with analytical horsepower that will transform farming, he predicts.
The Immense Potential of Analytical Horsepower
For now, analytical horsepower, despite its immense promise,
remains a sleeping giant with much of its potential still locked in the yield
monitors and other precision farming technologies that farmers use routinely.
“Right now, the argument can be made that all the precision
agriculture data has no value because it’s not yet being used,” Fulton says. “I
think the farming community would be surprised by how much data is left on
machines and never downloaded and archived — or, for that matter, acted upon.”
But this is changing rapidly as more companies perceive the
vast potential of this data trove in helping farmers make better informed decisions.
It’s the reason why Fulton remains optimistic about the future of farming,
particularly U.S. farming, despite its current challenges.
Two giant retail companies, Wal-Mart and Kroger, already
have demonstrated how data sets can be used to enhance the shopping experiences
of their companies. As he sees it, farming
is not too far behind.
What emerges will likely be a farming sector that is more
adaptive, more environmentally sustainable and, most important of all from the
perspective of farmers, more profitable, Fulton contends.
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