Farmers Have Only 40 Chances to Innovate

December 11, 2013 06:20 AM

Indiana farmer Kip Tom challenges farmers to do more with less.

Building on the theme of Howard G. Buffett’s book, 40 Chances, Kip Tom told a Farm Journal Forum 2013 audience last week that the typical farmer doesn’t take full advantage of the 40 growing seasons he may experience in a lifetime to improve productivity.

"We have a real problem in agriculture—we fail to innovate," said Tom, managing partner of Tom Farms, based in Leesburg, Ind. "We’ve heard discussions today about some innovations, but we aren’t doing it at the pace we need to. We need to dig deeper, reach further and all participate together to try to find the means to innovate further on our farms."

Listen as Tom discusses the future of ag innovation:

"I actually concluded my 40th crop at the end of Thanksgiving," Tom added, "and at the end of the day my kids came up to me and said, ‘Is this it, are you gone now?’" Although the comment drew a big laugh, it’s clear that Tom isn’t done farming and innovating.

Farmers, he said, have their work cut out for them. Agricultural productivity grows by 1.4% a year, based on yield improvements, while global demand for food increases by 1.75%. "That’s a gap that’s going to continue to grow unless we bring innovation to the farm gate and produce value to the consumer," Tom said.

Tom took the audience through some tactics his farm employed to achieve a corn yield of 228 bu. per acre this season. He attributed an additional 2 bu. to 18 bu. per acre to applying advanced algorithms to seed and fertilizer rates.

"We’re grabbing soil samples to figure out how much fertilizer to apply, on every one hectare of land," he said. "We can vary the population of corn per row" based on soil conditions. "Soon we’ll be able to vary by type of seed."

To assist in conservation, Tom’s irrigation system monitors how much water it pumps per minute and how many kilowatts of electricity it uses. The farm adjusts how much water is applied to each field, based on how much water the soil can hold, soil type and organic content. The data is used to improve productivity and reduce runoff.

Tom employed drones for the first time this summer to provide real-time analysis. The small aircraft used infra-red technology to shoot biomass maps and stream the information back to the farm office, where it was used to build a prescription for improving productivity.

During harvest season, he said, combines went through the fields, transmitted data into the data cloud, "and we knew instantly when a field was completed, how many bushels came off it, and what the productivity was. We can run hundreds of tests across an 80-acre field to find the best means to increase productivity."

Tom is pleased with the productivity tools—better seeds, precision farming equipment—that he receives from suppliers. "I can tell you it’s working," he said. The missing piece is an industry-wide, back-office Enterprise Resource Planning computer system to aggregate and analyze data from various sources, he said. In the meantime, farmers have so much data at their disposal that some might need to invest in someone to manage and analyze it.

Innovation, Tom said, is the key to feeding the world’s growing population. As farmers improve their yields, the country will need to invest in its infrastructure to move more goods around. In the meantime, farmers will need to step out of their comfort zone.

"We’ve been fearful to take that risk because we knew we only have 40 chances to get it right," Tom said. "We hope now with the profitability that’s been in the ag sector, and with our knowledge of the tools available to us, that we can invest back in and innovate in agriculture."

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