Field Notes: Take Your Office to the Field

September 24, 2009 07:00 PM
 

By Matt Hughes

Our family has always embraced new technology. We don't try to be the first to adopt something before there is evidence that it will work, but we definitely don't want to be the last.

The technology we have adopted most recently is a PDA, or personal digital assistant. The PDA is an upgrade from a smart phone. Both provided us with unlimited Internet access, including the ability to send and receive e-mail.

This hand-held technology helps me manage time more efficiently. The ability to send and receive e-mail whether I'm in the field or at a soybean association meeting saves me from having to constantly check the computer. 

With volatile prices, I need to stay in touch with the markets. Internet access lets me check cash and futures prices at local elevators or at the Chicago Board of Trade. 
     
Fingertip forecasts. In the field, I use the Internet to check weather forecasts. I can pull up a radar map and see exactly when a storm is going to hit. There have been times when I pulled the planter into the shed just before the rain started to fall.

Other times, I'll look at the darkening sky and swear I should head for the house; but a glance at the radar assures me the storm is going to pass around me. One day, I determined that if I waited about 10 minutes, a storm would pass through and I could load a truck with grain.

I used to get weather information by calling back to our farm office and asking my wife to check the radar. But with a smart phone or PDA, I don't have to depend on her being there to answer my question. Besides, she's busy with other things.

One day last spring, I was in the field getting ready to spray when I realized I didn't have a herbicide label. I used my smart phone to obtain one via the Internet, saving a trip home. Occasionally, I use the Internet to shop for used equipment. Often, the best time to buy is planting or harvest season when I'm busy in the field.

Hand-held technology complements auto-guidance. With auto-guidance, I now work longer days during planting season. After spending more time in the field, I'd rather not spend an hour on the computer after I go home at night. With a PDA, I can read and answer my e-mail in the tractor cab. And I do a better job of watching the planter than I did with manual steering.

It's not as easy to type a message on a smart phone's numerical keypad or a PDA's miniature keyboard as it is on a full- sized computer keyboard. So, I keep messages short or, more often, answer them with a phone call. Either way, the communication gets accomplished.

E-mail is especially valuable when placing an order for inputs like seed; there's less chance of a mistake than with voice mail. And it provides a written record of what you ordered.

Everyone's needs are different. You may be able to get all the Internet access you desire from a Web-enabled cell phone. For a small monthly fee, you can get weather and market information packages. You can download e-mail and read it when you want to, but you can't send replies until you get back to your office.
Constant upgrades. I moved up from a Web-enabled cell phone to a smart phone because I wanted complete Internet access and the ability to send and receive e-mail. Once I started traveling as a director of the Illinois Soybean Association, I upgraded to a PDA because it gave me access to everything on my desktop computer. I can edit Word and Excel documents on my PDA, and my Internet connection is faster. A PDA is like having my computer with me wherever I go.

My PDA came with a built-in GPS receiver. I can load field-mapping software and record the site of a problem as I scout a field.  

Looking ahead, I suspect our next major technological advancement will be replacing labor with a driverless vehicle. I think that will arrive first with auger wagons—no more sitting in the combine wondering if someone will show up to work. I also envision more remote control of grain bins and grain dryers. 

Matt Hughes

Home: Shirley, Ill.
Operation: Hughes grows 2,200 acres of corn and soybeans with his wife, Connie, who is a full-time partner on the farm.
Background: Hughes grew up on a farm in Litchfield, Ill. He met Connie while attending the University of Illinois. After receiving his master's degree in agricultural economics, Hughes worked in market research for companies in St. Louis and Bloomington, Ill. "That was great experience, but I always wanted to farm,” he says. Eventually, he and Connie took over the operation started by Connie's father. They have two children: Thaddeus, 10, and Marissa, 5. He serves as a director of the Illinois Soybean Association, on the Ag Guild of Illinois and on various McLean County Farm Bureau committees.

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