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.
“It used to be, if you could turn a wrench you’d be good at farming,” Burbrink said. “Now you need to know screen navigation, and pinpointing what data should go where so people can plan and predict. You need to be in tune with other people: seed consultants, agronomists, the equipment folks.”
Left unsaid: Burbrink, 34, has left behind his own family farm.
“I just work for Kip. He’s probably five years ahead of my dad in technology. You have to have more land than we do to pay for all this,” said Burbrink, who has an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics from Purdue.
Tom Farms has 25 employees, including six family members, year-round and at various times can have up to 600 temporary workers.
“Farms of this size can gross more than US$50 million in a good year,” Tom said. He will not disclose profitability, but he notes that margins are generally lower in farming than in most industries.
He still remembers begging for loans at 21 percent interest during the 1980s farm crisis. He credits his survival and growth to using technology, and figures it’s how he will prosper now that corn is at US$4 a bushel, about half the level it was two years ago.
Looking at last year, he said, better uses of data analysis have raised his return on investment to 21.2 percent, from 14 percent. Other technology, like variable rates of irrigation and automated farm machinery, he said, accounted for another 4 percent of the total.
Like many farmers, Tom is wary of what big company might own his data. He shares some information with Monsanto, for example, but is careful of others’ policies around data retention. He also worries about how computation is going to change the farm he hopes to leave to his children.
“We and the other farmers could pool all our harvest data in real time,” he said. “You think the big companies would like that? You bet they would. Farmers don’t trust that; they’re independent. Your neighbor is also your competitor.”
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