A technological revolution on the farmby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Higher energy costs are driving a technological revolution on farms across our region. Experts say tractors that steer themselves, smart equipment, and robots will change how our food is grown.
Fargo, N.D.. — Fall means long hours in the tractor for farmers across the region. But check out some of the latest in field equipment and it becomes clear, this is not your father's tractor. GPS receivers on the roof and flat screen monitors in the cab are becoming standard equipment on tractors. It's the kind of gear installed at Rust Sales, a small agricultural technology company near Fargo. Perry Rust says the main use for GPS now is automated steering. The driver only touches the steering wheel to turn at the end of the field, a computer does the rest. The farmer can spend time watching movies, making phone calls or surfing the internet.
GPS technology is not new, but farmers have been slow to adopt it.
Perry Rust starting trying to sell GPS steering equipment in 2001. "We went to trade shows with our product and people flat-out told us we will never buy that. 'Why do we need that? I would never spend money for that ever,'" says Rust with a smile.
In fact, Rust says he's sold a lot of equipment to Chinese corporate farms who he believes are implementing the technology more aggressively than many of their American counterparts.
But a few farmers in the region started using the technology, and some equipment manufacturers installed it on new tractors. Perry Rust says the technology spread through what he calls the coffee shop blog, word of mouth. Many farmers now insist on having GPS steering in their tractors.
But as fuel and fertilizer costs explode, more farmers are looking beyond the gee-whiz factor.
Perry Rust says there's growing interest in something called precision agriculture, a way to use GPS to micro manage fields.
"We're doing really well at precision ag. But I've been in this business a long time and we've weathered a lot of headaches. It's getting better," said Rust. "Now what we're looking for is more innovative products. Ideas that we didn't think of."
This year, farmers are looking for ways to save money by using less fertilizer, fuel and pesticides.
Gary Wagner says it's simply good business. Wagner farms near Crookston Minn., and he's been using precision ag for several years.
For example, he creates maps of the soil variation in his fields. Based on that map and GPS tracking, a computer adjusts the amount of fertilizer to the soil type.
"Two years ago we were paying $400 a ton for anhydrous," Wagner said. "Right now it's almost $1,300 a ton. That raised our cost from $20 an acre to $80 an acre just for nitrogen."
Wagner can also use GPS technology to put fertilizer in rows in the fall instead of across the entire field. Then when he plants corn in the spring, the tractor remembers where the fertilizer is and plants the corn on top of it. That saves money and reduces fertilizer runoff which causes water pollution.
Wagner is also using the technology to reduce pesticide use. He uses satellite images to create a map of where the weeds are in the field. Only those spots are sprayed.
"On an average year we can save ourselves anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 on herbicide costs," Wagner said. "Besides that, we're putting X many gallons less chemical in the environment. It's a win win situation."
Wagner says as farmers get more interested in the technology, major farm equipment manufacturers are ramping up research and development.
Wagner is part of a technology task force for John Deere company. He can't talk about the research, but he says he expects some significant changes in agriculture in the next five years.
We're on the verge of a technological revolution according to North Dakota Extension Service Ag Machines System Specialist John Nowatzki. He compares what's ahead, to the invention of the tractor. Nowatzki says it will soon be common practice for farmers to use computers and satellite images to manage fertilizer and pesticide applications. That's going to fuel a demand for more and better data.
Farmers rely on satellite images, but the satellites now in orbit pass over about once every two weeks. Farmers need to see their fields more often.
John Nowatzki says there's even been discussions about the state launching a satellite specifically to monitor North Dakota crops.
There are also some big changes closer the ground.
Could robots replace pesticide for controlling weeds in row crops? This summer John Nowatzki saw a demonstration of what the future might hold. He watched three-foot-tall robots weed a cornfield. He says they very efficiently cleaned out all the weeds without touching the corn plants.
"So there might be 20 or 30 of these little robotic weeders going up and down a field and they would have sensors so if it rains they just stop and go in to sleep mode and when it dries out they go again," Nowatzki said. "I don't think we've seen technology in agriculture developed to the highest level. We're going to see a lot more."
Nowatzki says he's stopped trying to predict which technologies farmers will embrace and which will fail. But with farm profits at record high levels, he sayd the timing is right for farmers to invest in technology that that will change how they do business in the future.
- All Things Considered, 09/19/2008, 4:54 p.m.