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Precision Thinking

We spotted a good article by Susan Winsor over at Corn and Soybean Digest. It’s got some good points – investing in making the best of what you have and using technology to do it are some of the best innovations the farming industry have made.

“A few bushels here and a few bushels there add up to real money. Even small advantages to certain products or management practices make a difference with today’s prices,”

Find out how he does just that.

Give it a read.

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Economy Redux

Opinions are important. Socializing our opinions is how we become an examined and explored open society with plenty of variety. In that vein, the STRIB’s Brian Riedl has written about what he feels has been a failure of the economic stimulus.

“Removing water from one end of a swimming pool and pouring it in the other end will not raise the overall water level — no matter how large the bucket.”

Well, he has a point, but is it one that holds water? What’s your take?

Coolest Profession

Looking forward is a healthy practice. The future of farming is only limited by technological advancement and the ability of the earth to host what we plant. Seeing the true colors of this coming image of farming is Thomas Frey with his contribution to the Issues section of Top Producer. His article “The Coolest Profession on Earth” really says it all in terms of how the young farmers can envision their role in shaping the future of food production and how too integrate this occupation into so many other layers of industry.

The Coolest Profession on Earth: By Thomas Frey 12/4/2009

Tomorrow’s farm technology will make today’s look as outdated as steam-powered traction engines seem today. The stage is being set for an unprecedented new generation of farming driven by ever-greater levels of precision, relevancy and control. Many farmers of tomorrow will be techno-geek agrarians packing handhelds and data readers to monitor far more than yields, costs and moisture content.

As with all industries, there are many microforces driving the changes ahead. But viewing them through the lens of these three overarching trends helps us grasp the interwoven nature of these often-competing drivers.

Trend No. 1—Precision. Seed technology has boosted productivity to the order of 1 to 3,200 or more.

Accurate GPS systems and auto-steer already enable planting near-perfect patterns and tailoring of inputs to field conditions. Emerging tech companies such as the Denver-based Moedus and their LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners with accuracy to 1 mm have the potential to radically improve GPS accuracy and add 3D-imaging characteristics to the data.

With this level of precision already in existence, some find it hard to believe we are striving for even greater precision. However, the stage is being set for farming to become “explosively precise.”

Smart Dust.
The idea of smart dust was introduced by Kristofer S. J. Pister at the University of California in 2001. This radio frequency-powered network of tiny wireless microelectromechanical systems includes sensors and monitoring devices that can detect anything from moisture to temperature, vibrations, chemical composition, etc.

With the same equipment used to sow seeds, smart dust will be “planted” into the soil to begin the monitoring process. Farms embedded with smart dust will essentially be glowing with real-time information.

Going further, by employing everything from magnetic fields to sound waves and signal frequencies, scientists seek to allow farmers to experiment with microcontrols to alter plant characteristics, ward off pests and enhance crop production.

Trend No. 2—Relevancy. Can better food create better people? Will a better food supply lead to healthier, stronger, smarter people?

These are exactly the type of questions driving the relevancy issue. How can we make the food we eat sync up with our own unique metabolism? In short, how do we make food more relevant?

Over time, science will develop real-time sensors in our bodies that can read everything from the fluctuation of brainwaves to microchanges in heartbeats, digestive processes and variations in perspiration rates. Such monitoring will translate into healthier food choices and, more importantly, choices tailored specifically to an individual’s needs.

Gaining an ability to read and monitor a person’s metabolic reaction to the food eaten will allow farmers to serve tiny niche demands of consumers with great precision.

Farmers will become expert at producing “jacked-in” food stocks with countless variations, managed through computerized processes designed to manipulate the end results. Controls will be exercised along a broad spectrum, from environmental conditions such as light, water and oxygen levels in the air to genetic manipulation according to approved safety guidelines.

The entire demand-driven supply chain will be automated and wired to the needs of the end user.

The regulatory system for insuring ultrasafe food supplies will be constantly monitored through automated data feeds at each step of the supply chain.

Trend No. 3—Control. Every business is more easily managed with better control of the variables. Farming is an industry fraught with too many variables, from weather to pests to soil, not to mention those beyond the farm gate, such as transportation and processing.

Silo Farming. The precision we use to monitor consumer demand, coupled with the increasing need to control variables, will begin the transition to ultraprecise farming operations in highly controlled environments. Today’s surface farming is both imprecise and subject to extreme external influences, making it less than ideal to supply the consumer marketplace of the future.

Farming in the future will go vertical. Several projects, such as Dickson Despommier’s at Columbia University, are in various conceptual and experimental stages.

The concept I envision would create both below-surface and above-surface silos with either layered or honeycomb-lined walls filled with rich topsoil to convert a small surface area on land into a much larger surface area on the walls of the silos.

A robotic arm will travel up and down a central shaft, performing all necessary tasks.

Sunlight will be captured through solar panels, power through wind, and water through an ongoing evaporation system that extracts moisture from the air. Such “farms” can be constructed in the most unforgiving places on the planet. This, coupled with the fact that it creates a year-round farming operation on greatly expanded surface area, has the ability to increase the Earth’s ability to produce food by a thousandfold.

As we examine the trends of precision, relevance and control, the future begins to come into focus. Next-generation farm operations will experience unprecedented new levels of opportunity, making future agribusiness professionals some of the most highly skilled people on earth and the envy of the executive class.

Farming is about to become the coolest profession on earth.


Editor’s note:
As we examine ways to manage margins in the year ahead, as well as policy changes in the wind, it seems appropriate to look at longer-term trends that also will influence your business in the future.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute in Louisville, Colo., and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker. He has been called the Father of Invention and the Dean of Futurists. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Frey spent 15 years as an engineer and designer at IBM, where he received more than 270 awards, exceeding any other IBM engineer.  He is also a past member of the Triple Nine Society, a high-IQ group (99.9th percentile).

Frey can be reached at dr2tom@davinciinstitute.com or (303) 666-4133.

John Phipps Says A Lot

We came across this article in the Perspectives section of a publication we receive, Top Producer. He discusses the standing of farm production among other industry occupations and rankings: farming is now a “Big” in the way that oil, banking, and other industries have been dubbed as “Big”.

Does the change-over from smaller operation to joint-venture and aggregated leases mean a paradigm shift for all farmers, does it mean an acceptance of “Big” industry? Chime in – we would love to see what you think.

By John Phipps 12/4/2009: Welcome to the Bigs

Sometime in the past decade or so, agriculture has achieved a dubious status: We have become a “Big.” We now stand in the ranks of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Government, Big Labor, Big Auto, Big Industry, Big Finance, Big Banking, Big Pharma and others. Big Ag is now a common label across the media. Google it and see.

The usage of this pejorative is hard to pin down. Why isn’t there a Big Chemical, or Big Insurance? Too many syllables? I suspect it is a matter of media exposure, which our industry has always welcomed, seeing it as an answer for many problems.

To be sure, we have been partially carried along as the middle seatmate of Big Grain and Big Agribusiness, but regardless, our actions in the past few years have firmly demonstrated our willingness to be included.

Growing Split. Most notable is the widening philosophical and political split between industrial (Big) farming and agrarian operations. While we have always been uneasy brethren, now the gloves are off. Observe the rancorous opposition to the National Animal Identification System by small producers as they rail against supportive organizations that mostly represent larger producers. Consider the organic/local farm groups as they attack large industrial farms with the most contemptible label at hand: Big Ag.

Another issue dividing farmers is preemptive animal care legislative efforts such as Issue 2 in Ohio. Once again, Big Agriculture is the protagonist and “small ag” is unconvinced.

This would be a mere curiosity if it were not so ironic. For most of my career, farmers in my category (assuming I have one) have been against Bigs of all types. Good grief—how could we have launched the great ethanol campaign without ranting against Big Oil with every other breath?

Suddenly, we are they. And soon, more people outside our industry will label my farm Big Ag. They will be accurate, I think. The fact that we have used size as a way to judge moral and social worth has looped around to bite us firmly in the you-know-where. In the strictest sense of the word, and certainly by historical standards, our operations are big. And we want them to grow bigger!

Of course, Big has always been a thinly disguised substitute for Bad. Now, the more we attack other Bigs, the more ammunition we provide to those who object to the size of own businesses.

Political Power. Most importantly, Big is vitally linked to industries that achieve significant success lobbying Congress, despite actual voting numbers. This may be the most pertinent linkage for farmers, as our legislative success with subsidies, mandates and preferential treatment is wildly disproportionate to our paltry numbers (a few hundred thousand industrial producers) or GDP contribution (about 1%). If you’re Big in Washington, you’re Big. Period.

As our new label becomes common usage, look for the baggage we threw on Big adversaries in the past to ricochet back on our image. Already, mainstream media parse between Big Ag and agrarian ag, making it more unlikely industrial producers can huddle behind the rustic disguise that has been our cover for too long.

Adding to this trend is our in-house admonishment to “speak with one voice.” The unison chorus is one classic hallmark of a Big, such as Big Labor, which farmers have derided for years. Big requires message discipline—or, more bluntly, lockstep submission to groupthink. We now embrace this brand because we value unanimity more than independent thought, I would say. The ethanol debate is a clear example of how Big Ag tolerates internal dissent.

Perhaps this can be seen as a maturation milestone for our industry. We’re held in the same esteem as world-spanning, government-manipulating and power-accumulating groups like labor and oil.

The problem is, what new epithet can we use for them now?

Mr. Phipps hosts the US Farm Report and can be reached by emailing  johnphipps at gmail dot com.

Food Autonomy

John Deere Water joins the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program SAN MARCOS, California – Oct 27, 2009 (PRN):

John Deere Water is lending its support to the Medea Group Ltd.’s Backpack Farm (BPF) Agriculture Program. The Backpack Farm is a comprehensive program enabling food autonomy in East Africa’s rural communities by providing small landholders with the cutting edge tools, training and technical support to build small landholder farming cooperatives. John Roberts, President of John Deere Water is enthusiastic about the program, “The support of the BPF Agriculture Program is consistent with our commitment to creating a business model with embedded service elements – innovating, creating, and distributing valuable products, services and while encouraging new business models that help humans around the world flourish.” John Deere Water will be providing complete drip irrigation kits. East Africa is facing record high food prices and food shortages. Simultaneously, seven out of ten Africans are farming but continue to suffer from deficient value chains. Rachel Zedeck, Managing Director of Medea Group believes “Africa’s farmers are capable of producing more food but they must have access to both the technology and markets to sell their harvests at prices to benefit both the farmers and local consumers”. Zedeck went on to say that, “Medea Group has also established a technical alliance with the Norman Borlaug Institute to conduct feasibility and impact studies on Backpack Farm programs built in Africa.” The Borlaug Institute is the global outreach of Texas A&M Agriculture. Medea Group has been operating in East Africa since 2007 with a vision to empower commercial, governmental and non-profit organizations with unique knowledge to make critical decisions, leverage opportunities and minimize risk in post-conflict regions. The Medea team has leveraged their microfinance experience blended with research and analysis to launch the “Suganic” initiative a non-political, non-religious, commercial initiative supporting the design of responsible and sustainable AGRO based initiatives achieving food security, income generation, enhanced nutrition, human resources development (HRD) in East Africa’s developing economies. Deere & Company (NYSE: DE) is the world’s leading provider of advanced products and services for agriculture and forestry and a major provider of advanced products and services for construction, lawn and turf care, landscaping and irrigation. John Deere also provides financial services worldwide and manufactures and markets engines used in heavy equipment.

For more information, contact: Brian Jewell Manager Global Marketing Communications 760-744-4511 Email: BJewell@JohnDeereWater.com

Fellow Blogger Embraces Techno-Farming

This article appeared on Wired.Com’s site here. We thank Mr. Blair for his past contributions and for his technological pioneering for the Agriculture industry. Credit to writer Alexis Madrigal for her great article.

It was 1903 when Robert Blair’s great-grandfather began farming the dry ridge overlooking the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho. In 2001, when Blair took the reins, the farm’s books were still kept by hand. Now, he has deployed a set of Darpa-like technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles and self-steering tractors.

“In six years, I went from just having a cell phone to my tractor driving itself, and having a small airplane flying and landing itself on a farm,” Blair said.

The new precision farmers are hacking together a way of making food in which the virtual and physical worlds are so tightly bound that having his tractor steered by GPS-guidance with inch-level accuracy is ho-hum. Autosteering of farm machinery has exploded over the past several years, according to an annual survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business. In 2004, just 5 percent of agricultural retail outlets offered autosteering. In 2008, more than half did.

In a 2009 issue of Precision Farmer Magazine, Montana wheat farmer Steven Swank described the benefits of a souped-up GPS called “real-time kinematic” (RTK) satellite navigation.

“RTK is so much more relaxing. It allows you to multitask, and that (allows) me to spend more time with my family,” Montana wheat farmer told Steven Swank. “I even watched a DVD in the cab with my daughter recently.”

Blair, at 40, is a leader of this next generation of farmers who are adapting the precision dreams of the ’90s to the realities of the soil and the history of their acreage. People dreamed of vastly reducing pesticide and fertilizer use by applying just the right amount to each plant, but the variable-rate technologies have been only patchily adopted. Instead, a new crop of younger growers has started to use something like augmented reality. Data draped over their land guides their tractors and their decision-making.

“The big story is the generational shift going on right now,” said Joe Russo, president of the agriculture technology company, ZeDX. “The younger people are starting to get ahold of these farms and they have a much different attitude to technology. They Twitter, they got smartphones, they’re always on the computer. Precision ag is gonna ride that wave.”

Continue reading Fellow Blogger Embraces Techno-Farming