Is Farming Becoming Too Easy?

June 3, 2014

Has high tech farming become too successful? Growers last year were able to plant more in less time than ever before, which resulted in a record crop that cratered prices. Farmers are now stepping back on their demand for things like self-driving combines and GPS-equipped tractors—for now at least.

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled this tech-driven disruption in agriculture; I must admit to finding it fascinating:

When Mr. Walter, the DeKalb grower, began farming 44 years ago, he had a four-row planter that would do its best to plant seed every few feet. Now he plants 24 rows with seed falling into the ground at exact intervals set and monitored by a computerized planter—intervals determined by soil type, quality and moisture.

Clad in dusty blue jeans and a Trout Unlimited cap, Mr. Walter was in a hurry to sow his crop earlier this month. Like many farmers, he had faced delays after a soggy, chilly spring.

"There's a real sense of urgency to get this field done," he said over the din of his green-and-yellow tractor. "If it starts raining tomorrow and doesn't dry up for 10 days, I'll have to plant in the mud, and that's no fun."

Along with the Deere system he bought to steer and monitor seed rates, he outfitted his tractor last year with a computer made by Precision Planting, a division of seed maker Monsanto Co., that ensures the seed is dropped in the right place and spaced evenly. The computer runs about $4,000; adding software and components to retrofit it to older farm equipment can double that cost.

New software, also from Precision Planting, enabled him to connect an iPad that broadcasts planting progress using cloud technology and then maps how much of the field has been seeded. That data is available in real time to Mr. Walter's business partners.

GPS not only lets farmers plant at night—helping them get the job done faster—but it also ensures they're not sowing two seeds where only one is needed. Conversely, it prevents them from leaving narrow swaths of valuable land unseeded 

While equipment sales have slowed recently, farmers will continue to upgrade technology because they "find value in the added precision," said Jeff Kaprelian, a broker at commodities brokerage The Hueber Report in Sycamore, Ill.

Much of what’s now taken for granted in farming wouldn’t have even been possible ten years ago. These new machines, most of them hulking examples of what Big Data can bring to the “old economy,” were brought onto fields in record speeds. It should be no surprise then that farmers are feeling a momentary pinch from this amount of disruption. But farms will find new ways to capitalize on these machines to meet the demands of the marketplace. They’re too valuable to do otherwise.