By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota, USA
Where’s my jet pack?
This rhetorical question is an old joke, usually uttered to express satiric dissatisfaction with how we’re not living in the future we once imagined for ourselves.
We saw jet packs on The Jetsons, in Rocketeer comic books, and on the back of Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies. They fueled our imagination. And while today we may marvel at video conferencing, online shopping, and computers the size of wristwatches, we still don’t have jet packs.
When I was a boy, I never thought about how we’d use jet packs on our family farm in North Dakota—and I certainly didn’t anticipate the space-age farm equipment we really do enjoy today.
I was just happy when someone invented the tractor cab. I’m old enough to remember what it was like to operate a combine in the open air. If that sounds like the agricultural equivalent of driving a sporty convertible down the highway, then obviously you’ve never battled the elements when grain dust slams into your face and pushes down your shirt. You’ll never want a shower more desperately.
Our machine cabs today are climate-controlled miniature offices. They harness the power of modern computing and communications, with connections to sophisticated software, real-time market reports, and satellite images of the fields we’re tending. Increasingly, we don’t even drive them ourselves. While much of the world waits for the advent of autonomous cars, farmers for years have taken advantage of self-steering vehicles.
These novelties would be visible to anybody who joins me on a ride around my farm. Less apparent would be some of the remarkable innovations outside the cab. These tools help us plant smartly, fertilize appropriately, and spray wisely.
In the northern hemisphere spring, when we’re putting seeds in the ground, we program our machinery to understand everything there is to know about our fields, from the soil types and soil conditions to the field’s history of production. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to plant corn about six to eight inches apart, in rows that allow final plant populations around 32,000 – 38,000 plants per acre. But every field is different. Sometimes you reduce or increase the plant populations to accommodate each field’s unique conditions to maximize production efficiency.
This is the celebrated butterfly effect: Small choices about planting in the spring can make a huge difference in yield when we harvest in the fall.
Our modern technology allows us to account for dozens of variables—all in pursuit of the sustainable goal of growing more food on less land.
The sprayer we bought two years ago is another cutting-edge device. Dozens of nozzles line the boom, each one carefully spaced and individually controlled. We use it to apply crop-protection products—and it helps us to apply exactly the right amount in just the right place.
Our sprayer senses everything, from how fast we’re driving to whether we’re about to climb over a bump—and each nozzle can make an individual decision about how much pressure to apply at any given moment.
When we make turns, for example, the nozzles at the end of the boom travel much faster than the ones near the cab, and the valves adjust accordingly. They do this constantly, as none of our fields are perfectly rectangular and all of them include obstacles such as electrical poles and sloughs. They will shut down entirely if we’ve already gone over a particular area.
This is good for the economy of our farm as well as the environment we all live in.
Another kind of spray technology that’s finding its niche in markets around the world is drone spraying. For smallholder farmers who might currently be walking the fields with a backpack sprayer, this technology allows the spray to be directed from above, attacking only the targeted weeds while protecting the farmer who had previously been spraying weeds manually. And the technology is scale neutral – working well in relatively small fields, it’s adaptable for larger fields, able to zero in on problem spots identified in field imaging.
And just when you think agricultural technology can’t get any better, the engineers come up with something new: I’m now hearing that soon we’ll have booms with cameras that distinguish between the crops we want to grow and the weeds we want to kill.
I still don’t have my jet pack—but that’s okay, because the high-tech machinery on my farm is so much better.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network, where this column originates www.globalfarmernetwork.org