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Big tech on small farms

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WORLD Radio - Big tech on small farms

Small farm owners find creative ways to implement technology designed for larger operations


Jaron Wilson operating a self-driving tractor built by him and his brother Torray. Photo by Benjamin Owen

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Computers in cornfields.

Big tech has much to offer big agriculture, from autonomous machinery to AI-enabled equipment. But many small farm operations are waiting to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: A survey earlier this year shows less than a quarter of farmers have adopted the latest tech. The consulting firm McKinsey and Company found even fewer farmers plan to do so in the next two years.

WORLD’s Mary Muncy brings us the story, with reporting help from WORLD Watch video editor Benjamin Owen.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: Afton Darnell and her brother run a 60-acre specialty farm in North Carolina, growing mostly tomatoes and strawberries among other things.

SOUND: [FARM]

AFTON DARNELL: We’re the most often forgotten side of agriculture, we're still so archaic.

When it comes to agricultural tech, they’re a little skeptical.

She says a lot of new technology is made for big ag—meaning corn, soybeans, and wheat. Those crops are typically farmed on large, flat fields and most technology is created for that ideal set of conditions… but that isn’t always the case for smaller farms.

DARNELL: I was always super amazed by the computers that could drive the tractors from satellites because we're like live in the mountains and we have such rolling hills. We're not flat like that. So that's just so hard to fathom in our minds like the topography here is so much different You know, we the typography here would never work.

She remembers seeing an automatic strawberry picker in a magazine for the first time.

DARNELL: My dad's always taught us to, like, you've create a bond with your crew, and everybody works together. And it's hard work. So I was like, gosh, what would it be like to not have to worry about that?

But she says it’s a catch-22. Tech may cut her labor costs, but it also would replace many who rely on her for their livelihoods.

MARK LICHT: I think there are differences in, in farmers.

That’s Mark Licht, he’s with Iowa State University and studies corn and soybeans to help farmers with everything from planting decisions to yield estimations.

LICHT: Not everyone develops the newest iPhone, or the newest iPad, or whatever, at the same pace and farmers are no different.

Licht says there are several reasons for a slower uptake. The first, and likely biggest of which is cost.

LICHT: Being on the front end of adoption typically means that you're paying a larger or higher price, right?

That means bigger farms can be on the leading edge, spreading the cost out over thousands of acres, while smaller farms either have to make a relatively large investment or do without.

Licht says many of those investments are not in large equipment, rather they’re in ways to gather data.

LICHT: In the production process, we're collecting a lot of data, a tremendous amount of data more now than we've ever collected before.

What kind of data? The kind that tells farmers which seed to buy or how much fertilizer they need in a certain area.

Chad Bever farms 800 acres of corn and beans in Indiana. That’s more than 12 times bigger than the Darnells—but he’s still considered a small farmer in the big ag world. He has to pick and choose what he invests in. So, he doesn’t have a self-driving tractor, but he does have harvest mapping technology.

CHAD BEVER: I think that's where a smaller farmer can benefit. Because at the end of the day, at the end of the day, he knows what came off of that field and he knows what has to go back on that field.

But as helpful as it is, that’s half the data he could be getting.

His neighbors have the equipment and software to potentially make planting season more efficient too. But Bever wants to put their two planters side by side and see if it actually helps.

BEVER: You know all the technology of downforce and, and seed placement Uh, and all that stuff in a corn planter in the spring of the year. I mean, you really don't know if that's helping you or hurtingv you, or not.

While the Bevers are choosing to invest in data… others are investing in equipment… even if it’s unconventional.

SOUND: [Tractor]

Brothers Torray and Jaron Wilson operate a 600-acre farm in northwest Iowa where they grew up.

JARON WILSON: This is a Windows tablet that runs our auto steer program called Ag Open GPS. The green is what we’ve planted and since we’re doing weed control we’re just going to follow those same lines.

Ag Open GPS is one of a few open-source systems that farmers have created and shared. The brothers built and installed that self-driving tractor system themselves, connecting the tablet with its GPS program to the tractor’s steering wheel with a surprisingly simple mechanical solution.

JARON WILSON: So we just took a router and a chunk of wood and made a circular disc out of wood, tied it to the handles.

It’s complicated to do it themselves, but the brothers like knowing their systems inside and out and being able to fix it.

Some newer equipment can’t be fixed without codes from the manufacturer, and dealer repairs are often too expensive.

So open-source tech can help some small farms stay up and running and even help others grow.

Agriculture researcher Mark Licht says just because big ag has more resources doesn’t mean smaller farms will be wiped out. People will carry on their family farms, continuing a lifestyle they were taught.

LICHT: Some of them will grow over time, if you know, a son comes into the operation and wants to grow the operation. So some of them can grow in and then others, they just stay that size.

Chad Bever says that while the latest technology might be helpful… being lower tech isn’t going to stop him from carrying on the family farm.

BEVER: Farming gets in your blood, and it's, you know, it's something that you love, and it's hard to give up.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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