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Agricultural ingenuity

If there is one defining characteristic of American agriculture, it is that the inventors and innovators never rest. The improvement of equipment and production systems has been
non-stop since hand seeding gave way to the planter, binding yielded to the combine and plant breeding embraced biotechnology.

“We just can’t leave it alone,” said a man looking at a John Deere planter that was just slightly narrower than a football field. The display was at the Farm Progress Show on the lush landscape of the Amana Colonies in Eastern Iowa. Driving into the show through the maize of test plots, with a backdrop of flowing fields of corn and soybeans, you’d think we had reached as far as we could go in developing hybrids and varieties to yield their bounty, while standing against Mother Nature’s pests and fury. But, we’ve just begun to maximize each plant’s potential and the efficiency of farming hours, while minimizing the use of fertilizer, fuel and operator energy.

The biggest “buzz” in equipment is “auto steering” utilizing global positioning satellites that allow the operator to make each pass with tillage or planting equipment exactly parallel to the last with no skips and no overlaps. The challenge of straight rows is gone and input savings is the justification.

But, John Deere has just equipped its newest tractors with a feature that should cause every self-respecting farmer to throw down his crescent wrench, shuck out of his overalls and walk home like a jilted husband! These tractors will not only parallel track, they’ll turn themselves around at the end of the row, after automatically removing the tillage or planting equipment from the soil. When they complete the turn inside the defined boundaries of the field, they’ll put the equipment back in the ground and proceed on the new course.

One of my friends, who grew up on a farm, in the 1960’s, said he never planted a single kernel of corn because his father just couldn’t risk that his rows might be crooked. Now you can program the tractor and send a minimally skilled operator to do the work with perfect results. Is that the true value of the technology? Deere says no, it’s the decrease in operator fatigue and the “multi-tasking” that can be done while operating the machine.

On the biotechnology front, the novelty of putting a gene for herbicide resistance into a soybean plant, or a gene to resist insects into corn, has given way to “stacking” of genetic
improvements, to the point that the grower can now pick which herbicide he wishes to use, as well as the combination of rootworm and corn borer protection. Monsanto showed its newest trait, drought tolerant corn, with the goal of the plant
reaching its full genetic potential even under drought stress. The genetics and approval process seem to be complex, so you’ll have several years to anticipate its release.

Monsanto’s biggest roll out was in soybeans, where they have altered the plant to produce oil that either has reduced trans fats or high levels of a heart-healthy substance called Omega 3. This may open up the consumer market, as a plant based nutrient is more  stable than the current source from fish and carries no adverse taste, because the gene comes from plankton and not salmon.

There really needed to be benches at the Farm Progress Show, where farmers could sit and let their heads stop swimming before moving on to the next “gee-whiz” technology. The most amazing thing about these innovations is the adoption rate. Farmers are not standing their ground, with their current practices; they are rushing, headlong, toward anything that will allow them to farm faster and more accurately with greater
dependability of yield and quality. Herbicide tolerant soybeans were introduced in 1994. Today, you literally can’t find a field that’s not herbicide resistant, except in the organic
sector. Many companies are coming forth with auto steer for equipment and farmers are retrofitting it at an increasing rate. New equipment and new seed releases are adding technology and traits, as the baseline continues to accelerate upward, through time.

There is a remarkable reverence to the past, among these same innovators. It is common to see restored equipment taking up valuable space on the site with the new technology. A Dodge Power Wagon of early 1950s vintage was proudly displayed among the shiny new horned behemoths. A Minneapolis Moline UDLX tractor, built in 1939, with a radio, headlights, cab and a top speed of 41 miles an hour, is almost a shrine to those with
regrets that the tractor failed. It was too far ahead of its time and too expensive ($1,900) for Depression scarred farmers to risk the farm or social condemnation to own.

To show the total dichotomy of agriculture, I finished the week at the Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It is an event that highlights steam engines and Oil Pull tractors, along with horses and strange looking engines that were built between the wars. The men and women who had toured the modern marvels of midweek were perfectly comfortable walking the grounds, admiring these soot and steam belching, iron clanking,
barely maneuverable mammoths.

In final contemplation, it appears agriculture has established a logical perspective. We know from whence we came and use the courage of that generational passage to take us forward to those regions whence we know not, but must explore.

Remember, Captain James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise, will be born in the year 2233 in Riverside, Iowa.