Rice Farming's High-Tech Makeover

October 19, 2016 07:09 AM

It’s a town that sits 45 miles southeast of Little Rock. With a population of just over 9,000, Stuttgart, Ark., ground zero for U.S. rice production.

“Every farmer in the area farms some acreage of rice,” says Bryan Houghton, of Greenway Equipment, the local John Deere dealer.

As harvest rolls along this fall, farmers are mudding the crop out, and yields aren’t shattering any records.

“There are a lot of blanks on the head,” says Derek Bohanan as he sits behind the wheel of the combine. “It's not a disaster, but it's nothing to brag about.”

During the growing season, water remains a vital resource. Water management is a huge part of what these farmers do on a daily basis.

“Virtually all of our water is dependent on irrigation,” says Marshall Stewart, President of Greenway Equipment. 

“Water is a big issue because we can't grow rice without water,” says Stuttgart, Ark., farmer Terry Dabbs.

Terry’s son, Trent, adds that their operation relies 100% on surface water on their farm.

“So, we have to manage the water we have coming out of our reservoirs, because once it's gone, we're done,” he says.

That need has also changed the way Greenway Equipment does business because it no longer just sells farm equipment. The company now must cater to the water needs of farmers.

“In every challenging time, there are opportunities out there,” Stewart says. “It's our job to find those opportunities. We'll go in and we'll analyze the field, we'll look at the rate flow on the well, so we'll calculate for the producer what size hole he needs to punch all the way down the pipe line, to figure out where it will all come out and water at the same period of time.”

Ag technology has made valuable contributions in this regard. For example, with TerraCutta and the ability to have GPS Landforming through iGrade controllers on John Deere tractors, farmers can now make small changes to the elevation surface of their fields. They can also take out holes and water-holding areas that reduce yields.

Other technology like drones also make water conservation a little easier. 

“It helps with checking water,” says David Petter, an area farmer. “We are very conservative of water. I can set up and do a couple hundred acres of checking water level without getting out of the pickup, which saves us a lot of time.”

Technology has helped Petter with efficiency – and peace of mind.

“John Deere offers on our sprayer a documentation of how we spray: the time, what’s put out,” he says. “It’s all set up, and at the end of the day, you can print a report. It records everything the EPA asks for in a report.”

Technology inside the combine is also gaining pace, helping improve efficiency for these Arkansas farmers.  

“I can remember harvesting, on a good day, it was 2,000 bushels a day,” says Robert Petter. “And today, we're harvesting right at that an hour.”

For these farmers, GPS guidance and other precision technologies aren’t new, but they have been a big boost to their bottom lines. Greg Peterson, host of Machinery Pete TV, says new machine sales have slowed in this part of farm country. But across the country, he has seen upgrades in equipment also taper off.

“We have begun to see a few softer prices around the country on same late-model used equipment,” he says.

Peterson says historically, harvest season typically brings softer prices.

“Late summer into early October has been a great time to buy over the years,” he says. “Prices tend to be a little weaker, because we're just waiting to see how the harvest comes out and  how yields are.”

In this area, more equipment has flooded the market, some not by choice. 

“There's already a lot of late-model used equipment on the dealer lots, so you interject two or three stressed farm auctions with late model equipment, it can affect things,” Peterson says.

With the 2016 crop in the rear view mirror, area farmers say despite the lower rice prices, it’s a crop they’ll continue to grow.   

“I hate to say it's what we know, but it probably does go back to that,” says Bohanan. “We tried corn in 2013, had good luck with it, but there's no receiving elevator in town and the closest is in an hour away.” 

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