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April 2013 Archive for Growing Technology

RSS By: Ben Potter, AgWeb.com

Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.
 

 

Time For Your Precision Tune-Up

Apr 17, 2013

Winter Storm Yogi (really?), which is set to dump another round of April snow and rain on much of the Midwest this week, is draining the already depleted patience of farmers ready to kick off the 2013 planting season.

Fortunately, the inclement weather is relieving some drought-stressed areas and creating the opportunity to go over your planter and tractor tune-up checklist one last time. If there’s still time left over after every row cleaner, gauge wheel and sprocket is in place, you may want to consider giving something else a tune-up – your precision ag equipment.

"Whether you’re spreading, planting or spraying, pre-season updates and calibration of your application equipment will help to minimize errors," writes Joe Luck, Extension precision agricultural engineer with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the latest edition of the university's CropWatch newsletter. "Technology has come a long way over the past few years, [but] it won’t solve all of our application problems. Proper maintenance and management is still a must for minimizing your field errors."

Here are a few things Luck says are worth checking:

Make sure your GPS receiver’s firmware is up-to-date. This is often as simple as downloading the required file to a USB drive and uploading it to your receiver.
Calibrate your ground speed radar. Check your manufacturer’s specifications, and make sure the radar is mounted securely to the vehicle frame.
Double-check offsets from the GPS antennae to equipment. For example, measure from the GPS antenna to the boom centerline for sprayers that have automatic section control. These types of measurements can help you properly calibrate equipment to minimize skips and overlaps at the end of passes.
Select calibration settings that will emulate "real field" conditions. You can also perform more checks at higher or lower settings (ground speed, for example) so you can evaluate the potential for error when you deviate from typical ranges.

Luck has more timely, helpful advice here.
 

What Farmers Can Learn From a Film Critic

Apr 05, 2013

Writers appreciate other writers, so even though I’ve never written a movie review, I have always respected and admired Roger Ebert. The prolific Chicago Sun-Times film critic always had a unique grace and elegance to his writing. His wit was quick, and his turns of phrase were among the best.

Even though Ebert was a movie critic, his good writing tends often transcended its subject matter. Ebert, who lost his battle to cancer yesterday, also spent a good deal of time contemplating his life and life in general. Here are a few of his most memorable quotes that can inspire us all:

"Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you."

"We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds."

"What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: curious and teachable."

"I began to realize that I had tended to avoid some people because of my instant conclusions about who they were and what they would have to say. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me."

"The problem with being sure that God is on your side is that you can't change your mind, because God sure isn't going to change His."

"To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world."

"I know death is coming, and I do not fear it. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting."

Thank you, Roger.
 

Two Things I Hate About The Monsanto Protection Act

Apr 02, 2013

I fielded a worrisome e-mail last week urging that President Barack Obama veto H.R. 933 because of a "poison pill" an activist group says is tucked into Section 735 of the bill.

"Known as the Monsanto Protection act, [this provision] undermines the independence of judicial review and gives biotech seed companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical a blank check on the approval of new genetically engineered crops," the email dutifully informed me.

Scary stuff. But is it true? The e-mail didn’t link to the bill, so like any good reporter, I tracked it down and read it. I was a bit troubled by what I read. Here are two things that bother me the most about Section 735 of H.R. 933.

1. It’s not even called the "Monsanto Protection Act."

It’s called Section 735 of H.R. 933. That’s not exciting enough for most people, so proponents tend to refer to it as the "Farmer Assurance Act," while opponents have settled on the "Monsanto Protection Act." Invoking Monsanto like it’s some big scary monster destroys the chance for constructive dialogue. Skeptical scientist Brian Dunning even named a new logical fallacy after it – the Argumentum ad Monsantium.

"This is the logic that compels many anti-GMO activists to reply to any argument in support of biotech crops with, ‘So you love Monsanto,’" he writes. "Monsanto does not necessarily have anything to do with any given science-based discussion of the merits of what can and should be done with direct genetic manipulation."

If you want to have a conversation without resorting to scare tactics, then you have to read the actual copy. Which brings us to No. 2…

2. It's written in hopelessly complicated legalese.

Here’s the entirety of Section 735. Go ahead, tell me what it means to you:

In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.

That’s one single sentence, by the way. If your eyes glazed over trying to read it, join the club. I reached out to someone smarter than me to interpret the language. I started with Dr. Kevin Folta, an associate professor at the University of Florida, who has studied genetics and genomics for years.

"After my synthesis, it simply says that [USDA] can make an executive decision based on evidence," he says. "With all of the anti-GMO fervor, all of the misinformation, we cannot take all claims seriously – only those that have sound scientific background. Going forward, it is easy to see how activists might report a problem or cause a problem to stop use of biotech. I think this provision helps limit that possibility and gives the [agency] opportunity and authority to consult scientific experts before a decision is made."

"Please note that this is only my interpretation," he adds.

I also contacted John Dillard, an agricultural and environmental litigation attorney with OFW Law, and author of the Ag in the Courtroom blog on AgWeb. Dillard provided additional clarity.

In general, a genetically engineered plant is deemed a regulated article under the Plant Protection Act, he says. However, companies can petition for non-regulated status for their genetically engineered crops by proving through sound scientific methods that the plant is not a plant pest risk.

"This is a lengthy process that allows for input from the general public," he says. "If USDA determines, based on the data presented, that the GMO plant is not a plant pest risk, then it is given non-regulated status. With this status, seed companies are free to market the seed to farmers, and farmers are free to plant it in accordance with any restrictions imposed by USDA."

Recent history motivated the provision, Dillard adds, citing the lawsuit against Roundup Ready sugarbeets. A district court granted an injunction ordering the destruction of the RR sugarbeets that were planted before that lawsuit. Roundup Ready alfalfa was also held up for four years because of an activist lawsuit. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to allow Roundup Ready alfalfa seed planting to go forward.

"One of the first things that the anti-GMO groups typically do is to seek an injunction from the courts to bar further sale of the GMO seeds in question and order the destruction of the seedlings that have already been planted," he says. "It is now standard practice for anti-GMO groups to challenge USDA’s finding of non-regulated status. These lawsuits will continue – they just won’t have the consequence of leaving farmers stuck with crops they can’t harvest."

In short, GMO crops will still undergo years of testing and review before they are allowed non-regulatory status, sometimes by multiple governmental agencies. For example, Bt corn had to be approved by the USDA, EPA and FDA before it could be sold. Section 735 is intended to prevent abuses of the court system once they are already on the market.

Lawsuits challenging USDA’s decision to approve a new GMO variety can still go forward. That’s not quite the "blank check" that activist groups fear. Then again, you can hardly blame them. The provision is written so densely and so vaguely that it allows people more than enough room to twist the meaning however they want.

The bottom line? The provision might be well-intended, but it’s a shame it was so poorly written.
 

My Favorite April Fool's Joke

Apr 01, 2013

 Today is a day beloved by pranksters the world over. There have been some fine yarns spun over the years, but there are none I love better than the 1957 BBC report on spaghetti that concludes: "For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real home-grown spaghetti."

Come again? Home-grown?

The report was about the supposed "exceptionally heavy spaghetti harvest" that spring in Switzerland. BBC presenter Richard Dimbleby imagined a spaghetti crop bred for its uniformity and growing on bushes. The accompanying video footage showed farmhands picking strands of spaghetti off bushes and laying them out to dry in the Alpine sun.

Some viewers got the joke, but thousands of others were left confused by the possibility of a real pasta harvest. Some even called into the BBC to inquire where they could purchase their very own spaghetti bush. The report is now fondly remembered as one of the very first hoaxes played out on television and routinely appears on Top 10 lists.

What’s your favorite April Fool’s Day joke?

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