The 21st Century Is Coming to a Farm Near You

Published on: 18:53PM Jan 05, 2015

The 21st Century is Coming to a Farm Near You


For many Americans living in urban or suburban communities far removed from the countryside, their image of farming has been frozen in time, hearkening back to the farm couple portrayed in Grant Woods’ American Gothic or the Norman Rockwell farmer covers of the Saturday Evening Post that stretched for several decades between the 1920’s and the 1960’s.  At the other extreme, some city dwellers have heard the phrase ‘corporate agriculture’ being bandied about during recent heated farm policy debates, and have conjured images of robot farmers harvesting crops and feeding livestock with little or no human intervention, all owned by large, faceless corporations.


In fact, the true picture of farmers and farming in the United States falls somewhere between these two visions.  According to USDA estimates, non-family farms accounted for only 2 percent of all U.S. farms in 2007, although since such operations tend to be larger than average, they own 6.6 percent of all farm assets.  To the extent that small family farms still exists, those households often rely on one or more family members earning off-farm income to get by—on average, their net income from farming activities is frequently negative.


Larger family farms generating at least $250,000 in farm revenue annually—an amount which is regarded to be the minimum required in most regions to support a family without off-farm income--account for only about 12 percent of all farms but produce 84 percent of U.S. farm production by value.  Many of these farmers have adopted cutting-edge technologies in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs, bringing the Digital Age to rural America.  Those developments include automation of certain tasks, but human beings are still required to keep an eye on things.


Modern combines utilize GPS systems to gather information on crop yields in different parts of a field, and newer models allow for automatic steering of the equipment.  The cabins of this type of equipment are climate-controlled and allow the farmer to track weather conditions and market prices in real-time on computer equipment (such as an I-Pad) while cultivating the fields.  According to USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS),  72 percent of all U.S. corn farmers surveyed used some form of precision agriculture technology on their farms in 2010, with the two most common applications being yield monitors (61 percent) and auto-steering (45 percent). 


Some crop farmers,  such as Dave Nelson from Ft. Dodge, Iowa, take the technology further, using  ‘prescriptive planting’ information provided by so-called big data companies in agriculture such as Climate Corp. to custom-plant their fields, varying seeding rate, row width, and fertilizer application rates depending on detailed weather information and the innate soil fertility of different parts of the field.  Many farmers have explored the use of drones to help monitor their fields for disease or pest problems during the growing season, but such use has not yet been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.


In the U.S. dairy sector, some large-scale farmers, facing shortages of hired labor, now utilize robotic milking equipment to milk their cows, although the farmers still have to monitor the equipment and gauge each animal’s milk quantity and quality, which is tracked through the radio ID tag each animal wears.  In these operations, cows actually decide for themselves when they want to be milked, and walk into the automated stalls, where the computer identifies the cow and determines how recently it has visited the stalls.  If milking is indicated, laser-guided mechanical arms sanitize the cow’s udder and then attach cups to the teats.  The owners of the Schaendorf Dairy in Allegan, Michigan installed three robot units in 2012, milking 165 first-lactation cows in the facility, while their remaining 1,735 cows still utilize more traditional milking parlors.  This robotic technology has been adopted on a wide-spread basis earlier in Canada and Europe than in the United States.  As of 2012, robotic milking equipment was in use in 24 states, with the highest numbers in the Midwest and Northeast.


All of this new technology enables American farmers to continue to be among the most efficient in the world, keeping food costs to consumers low.  As of 2013, the average American spent only 8.8 percent of his or her income on food and beverages consumed at home, the lowest among 85 countries tracked by USDA’s Economic Research Service. 


Improved technology in combination with other related factors, such as increased adoption of conserving agricultural practices, has also helped American farmers to reduce soil erosion and agricultural chemical runoff from their lands in recent decades.  For example, the use of Round-up Ready soybeans has made it easier for farmers to adopt no-till cultivation practices for that crop.  According to the Crop Residue Management Survey collected by the Conservation Tillage Innovation Center, use of conservation tillage on U.S. soybean acres rose 36 percent between 1996 and 2008.  As a result of these changes, the National Resources Inventory (NRI) indicates that soil erosion from cropland declined by 41 percent between 1982 and 2010.  Similarly, EPA Water Quality Assessments have found that the river miles of U.S. waters impaired or degraded by agricultural runoff declined by 25 percent between 1996 and 2013. 


All in all, American consumers also clearly benefit from technology adoption by farmers, making it a win-win situation for everyone concerned.