Tue, Dec 02, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Working the land and data

The demise of the family farm has been a long time coming. But for people like Kip Tom, technology offers a lifeline

By Quentin Hardy  /  NY Times News Service

Sensors measuring temperature and humidity are seen at a test site for a cloud-based farming system. Cutting-edge technology is helping small-scale farmers cope with shifting weather patterns and compete with giant agribusinesses.

Photo: Reuters

Kip Tom, a seventh-generation family farmer, harvests the staples of modern agriculture: seed corn, feed corn, soybeans and data.

“I’m hooked on a drug of information and productivity,” he said, sitting in an office filled with computer screens and a whiteboard covered with schematics and plans for his farm’s computer network.

Tom, 59, is as much a chief technology officer as he is a farmer. Where his great-great-grandfather hitched a mule, “we’ve got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones,” he said.

The demise of the small family farm has been a long time coming. But for farmers like Tom, technology offers a lifeline, a way to navigate the boom-and-bust cycles of making a living from the land. It is also helping them grow to compete with giant agribusinesses.

While some benefit, others will lose. Silicon Valley is credited — or blamed — for tearing down many old ways of doing things. With its adoption of the latest technology, Tom’s farm is expanding, to 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) today from 700 acres in the 1970s. But some of his neighbors’ farms are fading away.

Furthermore, such costly technology is beyond the smallest farmers. Equipment makers like John Deere and AGCO, for example, have covered their planters, tractors and harvesters with sensors, computers and communications equipment. A combine equipped to harvest a few crops cost perhaps US$65,000 in 2000; now it goes for as much as US$500,000 because of the added information technology.

“We’ve seen a big uptick in the productivity of larger farms,” said David Schimmelpfennig, an economist at the Agriculture Department. “It’s not that smaller farms are less productive, but the big ones can afford these technology investments.”

And there is another risk. There is an incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale. Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems. Smaller farmers without technology could also grow one crop, but they would not capture most of the gains.

Technology encourages farmers to move too aggressively toward easy-to-grow and easy-to-sell crops that are more easily measured by instruments, rather than keeping some diversity in the fields — an age-old hedge against bad weather and pests, said Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, a policy and technology research institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

That is the fear. But there is also the promise that technology can make farming far easier. Like Tom Farms, other farms have also grown with the adoption of technology.

At a large family farm in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Brian Braswell uses satellite-connected tractors to plow fields with accuracy of one inch between furrows. His soil was tested with electrical charges, then mapped so that fertilizer is applied in exact doses from computer-controlled machines. He uses drones, the newest new thing, to survey flood irrigation.

“It would be easy to put an infrared camera on one of these and spot where crops are stressed,” he said, except that he’s wary of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

From a self-driving John Deere combine, Ernie Burbrink, a Tom Farms employee, sorts real-time data about moisture, yields and net bushels per acre on his iPad, sending important information by wireless modem to distant cages of computer servers that begin analyzing the data for next season’s planting.

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