A Farmer’s Journey to Always Be Better
By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
My two-and-a-half-year-old grandson recently stayed at our family farm in North Dakota while his parents enjoyed a few days away.
One morning, he and I got up early. Everyone else remained asleep.
“What would you like for breakfast,” I asked.
“Cereal,” he said.
So I put a bowl on the counter and poured from a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then I waited for him to reach for it. But he didn’t make a move.
“Grandpa Terry?” he said. “At our house, we put milk in it.”
I had assumed that he was still eating cereal as a finger food. It goes to show how our grandkids grow up quickly—and how childhood might be described as “a journey to always be better.”
That happens to be the motto of the maker of Cinnamon Toast Crunch: “General Mills cereal is on a journey to always be better.”
That could be the motto of our farm, too.
It explains why we started to plant GMO corn and soybeans many years ago: They allow us to grow more food on less land than ever before. This is the very definition of sustainable agriculture – good for the earth and for the future of our family farm too.
Yet that’s not the only way we’ve used technology on our journey to always be better. If my farming ancestors could see what we’ve done with data, the dramatic changes would astonish them.
When I was young, we managed our farm field by field, which is to say that we treated each field as a single unit for the purpose of seeds, fertilizer, and herbicides. It didn’t matter if the fields were big (a hundred acres or more) or small (just a few acres).
Today, we manage our farm with much more precision, using GPS technology and individual recipes of nutrient, seed and pesticide rates. When we plant and protect crops, we consider soil, topography, and historical yield data. We even study infrared images on maps made by NASA. These tools allow us to see tremendous variation not just from field to field, but down to nearly the square foot.
For an area with rich soil and a history of excellent production, for example, we might add extra nitrogen and seed so that it matches yield potential, allowing the crops to attain as much protein as possible. On a hilltop with sandy soil, we might apply less.
We’re also exacting with the sprays that protect our crops against weeds, pests, and disease. Although we have never ‘drenched’ our fields with them, we apply just the right amounts, measuring everything to the drop. Our sprayers even are programmed to shut off when they go over ground they’ve already covered.
We aspire to operate an economically and environmentally sustainable business because we believe it’s the responsible approach. In this era of increased scrutiny of agriculture, however, we really have no choice. Consumers demand it.
Like most farms, after harvest we send our crops to grain merchants instead of directly to food companies. Yet it’s more than likely that we’ve supplied a company like General Mills indirectly—and that our high-quality wheat is being used in their products.
To borrow from their company motto, we’re partners on a journey to always be better.
I’m excited about how we’ll keep on being better in the future. On our family farm, we’re on the verge of using drones for additional data collection. Several research projects are now underway in North Dakota. My neighbors and I are watching them with great interest.
We’ll continue to innovate with our crops as well. Advances in seed technology may allow us to grow gluten-free wheat for people who suffer from celiac disease.
Our goal is to help Americans to put the best food possible on their dinner tables—and also on their breakfast counters, where they can fill bowls with cereal made from the crops on my farm.
By the time my grandson grows up, farming will be a lot different and almost certainly better, probably in ways we cannot anticipate. If he takes up a life in agriculture, he’ll continue on the journey, aiming to always be 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 Global Farmer Network where this column first appears.