Farmers seek to adapt as technology rapidly changes ag industry

Technology is changing every industry. But few have gone through the shifts so momentous – and visible – as agriculture.

Driverless tractor in operation, courtesy Case IH

In fact, a farmer who lived and worked 100 years ago might not recognize many things now common around the farm.

“My grandpa used to like to tell me the story about coming home to the noon meal during the harvest with his dad. This would have been in the ‘30s or ‘40s. The field behind the shed was making 100 bushels per acre. His dad told him at the time, ‘there’s one thing for sure – you’re never going to see corn that good again,’” Chester farmer Keith Alverson said. “Now, we’re seeing average yields of 200 plus in a lot of these fields.”

As dramatic some of the changes have been, there will be even bigger shifts down the road.

“Everything that I used to study when I was in school is in the history books now,” said Dr. Van Kelley, head of the SDSU Agriculture & Biosystems Engineering department. “That cycle is changing a lot quicker than it used to. Five years down the road, we’ll have a lot of different technology than we do today.”

Farm equipment is larger than ever before. Genetic engineering has created an increase in yields. Satellite mapping and GPS technology have allowed farmers to operate ever more precisely.

However, unlike many industries, these technologies are not just luxuries. They have been critical to feed a growing population.

“The current project is that the world’s population is expected to grow to about 9.5 billion people by the middle of the century,” said Dr. Don Marshall, interim dean of the SDSU College of Agricultural and Biological Sciences. “One thing all of those people are going to need to do is consume food.”

Farmers also face other pressures unique to their industry. While demand is increasing, the amount of land available will not. Stagnant crop and livestock prices often make profit margins razor thin.

“We have to be more efficient,” Marshall said. “That’s where technology comes into play.”

Some changes on the horizon are already in view, while others might be harder to envision.

South Dakota State University has a long history in developing agriculture advances, particularly those in the field of no-till technology. This helps maintain soil health, an issue which farmers who lived through the dust bowl of the 1930’s are keenly aware.

College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences Associate Dean Dr. Bill Gibbons said no-till allows the organic material living in the soil – earthworms, fungi, insects – to maintain their natural cycles. It also improves the ability of soils to absorb moisture.

The livestock industry is also undergoing changes in the ever-present surge to make agriculture more efficient.

SDSU recently completed a state-of-the-art cow-calf education and research facility. Researchers can measure literally every ounce of food and water each individual animal at the facility consumes, while also measuring the amount of waste they produce.

“It’s an essentially a completely enclosed system,” said Dr. Joe Cassady, head of SDSU’s Department of Animal Sciences. “That provides a very powerful tool.”

But even bigger changes are coming.

“We actually foresee a time when we have relay crops – or interceding of one crop while the other crop is still growing,” Dr. Gibbons said.

Another breakthrough which may be coming sooner than many realize – automation.

“The next step is automating the equipment, so you don’t necessarily have to have someone sitting in the cab of a tractor 80 hours a week as you drive back and forth in the field,” said SDSU Ag Science System Instructor Nicholas Uilk.

However, developments like driverless tractors represent a concern among some in the industry – technology taking the farmer out of farming.

For decades, the number of farmers has dwindled as machinery allows fewer people to do more work.

In 1974, there were 45,000 farm operations in South Dakota, according to the South Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2016, there’s around 31,000.

Those farmers make up the base of many rural communities across the Midwest. In many cases, those communities are shrinking.

Fewer farms means fewer farm kids, which may lead to a smaller talent pool for the industry.

“One thing we’ve noticed that goes along with rural communities shrinking over time is that the traditional pool of students we recruit has also gotten smaller,” Dr. Marshall said.

And of course, there is the impact of these changes on the farmers themselves.

“(Technology) has made some huge advances. It has its positives, but I think there’s some negative sides as well,” Ron Wirtjes said.

Wirtjes has farmed near Garretson for years. While he appreciates how new equipment has allowed him to be more efficient, he considers himself a skeptic on how new products are marketed.

“The guy that made the product is also the guy that did the research, and tells you how much it can pay as a return to you.”

He is also concerned that the high cost of keeping up technologically makes it harder to compete with larger farms. Plus, tech from different companies doesn’t always work together.

“I’ve even had it on some of my own stuff. You do the updates to a certain monitor or computer system in the technology, and all of a sudden your old data isn’t compatible with the new software you put in it.”

Wirtjes also has his concerns about automation and its safety.

“They have airplanes fly themselves, but they still have two pilots up front every time they leave the ground.”

However, some farmers are embracing the changes.

“It’s a really cool time to involved in farming,” farmer Keith Alverson said.

Alverson has been an early-adopter of several new technologies – including GPS and satellite technology.

“It really gives us a nice big picture view of what’s actually going on,” Alverson said. “Once we were able to determine areas of the field that are consistently low yielding or high yielding, or are facing weed and pest pressures, we can manage those.”

Alverson said he focuses on return on investment to determine which technologies to invest in. These include more precise planters and sprayers. In fact, his sprayer is equipped with cameras and the ability to turn individual nozzles off and on.

Aside from helping his bottom line, it also allows him to be a better steward of the land.

“It’s also helping in the environmental side of things because we’re not over applying,” Alverson said. “It prevents or reduces the risk of drift or carry over into neighboring areas like grasslands, things along those lines, that we don’t want to have an impact on negatively.”

And there are reasons to not count out small farms just yet.

Dr. Gibbons said consumers’ tastes are shifting – leaving the door open for smaller operations.

“We went through the ‘70s and ‘80s where the equipment went bigger and bigger and everything was getting industrialized,” Gibbons said. “But millennials and younger generations are really concerned about how their food is produced and who is producing it.”

Gibbons said there is also a growing demand for niche products, like organics, specialty meats, fruits, and vegetables. Some of these products can even be sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, leaving the door open to new opportunities – for anyone willing to think outside the box.

“It creates a whole lot of opportunity for young people entering farming to not think they need a thousand acres and huge equipment,” Gibbons said. “They can get an acre, or a couple acres to start with, raise some livestock for specific needs.”

Plus, technologies that have traditionally squeezed out small farmers may swing back around, and help them compete.

Gibbons said the implement industry may one day trend away from the massive combines and tractors currently being produced, and instead produce smaller machines that would operate without a driver. What they lack in size they would make up for with the ability to run constantly. The smaller size means they could be more precise – potentially operating a on single-row, or even single plant - at a time.

While technology like automation may be more costly when it is initially released, Gibbons said the price will come down in time.

“All new technologies are very expensive when they first come out,” Gibbons said. “Plasma TV’s, when they first came out, were thousands of dollars. Now they’re a few hundred dollars. The same thing happens with every new technology.”

There are other potentially encouraging sign for farmers. The rate at which small farmers are disappearing is shrinking. The number declined from 45,000 in 1974 to 32,000 in 2001 – but has remained relatively stable since then.

Regardless of farm size, these industry-wide changes may challenge the idea of what we think a farmer is.

“People tend to think of farms as a farmer out there driving on a tractor,” Gibbons said. “In reality, today’s farmers spend a majority of their time managing things. Managing their inputs, managing their sales. They’re businessmen, and businesswomen.”

Another factor to consider – many people who work in the ag industry are not traditional farmers.

According to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, 115,000 people work in agricultural-based jobs in the state – only about 46,000 of them are traditional producers.

Many of these jobs are based in technology and marketing. While many of these jobs are not readily available in smaller communities, there is a push to change that.

“We have to find ways that some of those value-added agriculture jobs can be located in rural areas so those communities can remain strong,” Dr. Marshall said.

That farmer who lived and worked 100 years ago may not recognize the technology we use – but he would recognize modern day farmers’ love of the land and their livestock – and their ability to adapt.

“I think that’s one thing we know about the future, it will be different than what we have today,” Alverson said. “It’s going to be fun to take part in it.”