Harvest 2017 Marks a 25 Year Milestone for Precision Ag
Charles W. Davis JR., November 4, 2017 - http://thetandd.com
If my Granddaddy were alive today, it would be hard for him to comprehend the changes that have occurred in agriculture in the last 50 years.
He raised his five kids by sharecropping and after a bout with tuberculosis, he retired into a life of raising pigs, cantaloupes and sweet potatoes. I spent the summers with him at the farm outside of Norway and it was there that my love of agriculture began.
Later I decided to major in agriculture at Clemson and, on my birthday in 1979, I began my 37-year career as a county extension agent with the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.
Oh, how the times have changed!
There are a number of things in agriculture that have seen dramatic changes in my lifetime. Equipment, technology, seed and chemicals, just to name a few, in no way resemble what my grandfather used.
By the time I began my career in 1979, agriculture was just beginning to see some of the revolution that is today’s norm.
The change that is probably hardest to grasp is the philosophical one. The public that is not directly involved in agriculture still has the American Gothic picture of Ma and Pa with their pitchfork standing solemnly in front of the barn. Fifty years ago, that picture may not have been far off base, but today, agriculture, while still a way of life, is more of a business.
Sure, farmers and their families still enjoy the pleasures of country living, being close to the land, and being the salt-of-the-earth type folks always characterizing the American farmer, but instead of being primarily concerned with growing enough food and feed to take care of their needs, they are more intently focused on feeding the world and making a good enough living to pay the bills.
I have heard more than one John Q Public say that all farmers do is ride around in pickup trucks. While farming the acreage we farm today in order to make a living does entail a lot of driving around, I quickly remind Mr. Public that while the farmer might be riding around in a pickup truck, there is probably a couple of million dollars of debt riding around in that pickup truck with him.
I promise you there is not a farmer I know who doesn’t go to bed at night and think about the pressure he or she is under to produce a crop in order to pay the bills.
The most obvious change that anyone can see is equipment. When I began my career, we used mostly four-row and still some two-row equipment. Tractors were mostly gasoline-powered and that was about the best we could do.
If we had a 100-horsepower tractor, we were the talk of the town. Then diesel equipment became the norm and before long, we moved horsepower up to where six-row equipment was possible.
Along about that time, we discovered that if we took a steel shank and pulled it deep enough into the soil to break up the hardpan that is common in our Coastal Plain soils and planted right on top of that furrow, we could greatly increase our yields since the plant roots could now go deeper and pick up nutrients and moisture that the sandy topsoil didn’t have to give.
Again, there was a demand for more horsepower. Today, we run eight and 12-row equipment with tractors pushing 360 horsepower and costing more than $300,000 just for the tractor.
I remember as a teenager spraying cotton for my uncle with an old International Harvester three-wheeled Hi-Boy sprayer with no cab, no air conditioner, no roof and no seat belt. I would spray eight rows at a time, and when I would turn around for the next pass, I would have to drive through the fog of what I had just sprayed.
We sprayed some toxic stuff back then, but more on that later. Today we use modern, enclosed cabs with filtered ventilation systems, air conditioning, roll bars built into the cab and safety devices galore. Electronics monitor every function of the machine and warn you when there is a stopped-up spray tip or some other malfunction and will even shut off tips when they pass over crop that has already been sprayed.
Now we can cover 24 rows with one pass. All for the low price of over $200,000.
The change in equipment was followed by a change in technology. Electronics became small enough and cheap enough that they found their way into agricultural equipment.
When Granddaddy was farming, there were few hydraulics. You lifted your cultivator by pulling a lever or if you could afford the high-priced version, you had a lift that would pick up the sweeps by gear-driven arms.
Then along came the three-point hitch and hydraulic pumps with hoses that went to the implements to power the hydraulic cylinders. Agriculture was on the move!
Today, modern tractors are nothing but high-horsepower hydraulic and electronic wonders with miles of electrical wires, actuators, switches, pumps, monitors and computers. Today’s tractors can steer themselves through the use of GPS guidance systems, remembering exactly where they were in the field down to the inch, so when they come back to the field, they drive down the same rows they did the last time they were there.
The farmer just turns the tractor around at the end of the row and the tractor wiggles itself over until it finds where it is supposed to be and off it goes to the other end of the field.
As I mentioned before, the sprayers, through the use of GPS, remember if the spray boom has passed over a row before and will cut off the spray tip over that area so the farmer doesn’t over spray the crop, wasting money and possibly causing crop damage, not to mention the environmental impact that is avoided by over-application of chemicals.
There was no irrigation in Granddaddy’s day, except what the Good Lord sent, but today we use high-efficiency center-pivot irrigation systems that can apply variable rates of water to different parts of the field based on soil type, minimizing erosion and excessive water use. They can be controlled by smartphone and will alarm the farmer by phone if there is a problem with the system.
We are also using some underground drip systems that further improve our water-use efficiency.
Then there are drones. Drone use in agriculture is booming. With drones, we can spot field problems that are hard to see from the ground, pick up patterns in the field that indicate equipment malfunctions and spy on wildlife that are damaging the crops. Using infrared cameras, we can pick up insect infestations, disease outbreaks and crop problems while they are still minor.
Grid soil sampling helps us minimize the overuse of fertilizers, saving money and improving the environment. Grid sampling breaks the field into grid sections and samples are taken from each section.
Fertilizers are then applied with variable-rate fertilizer spreaders, giving the grid only what the soil sample calls for. Over time, the field becomes more evenly productive and the farmer saves money.
Without a doubt, the greatest technological advancement in agricultural history has been the development of genetic modification. What used to take nature thousands of years to accomplish can now be done in the laboratory in a matter of a few years.
While there is much public debate about Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs, the science worldwide has concluded that they are safe and virtually identical to their parents, with the exception of a few genes that have been either added or modified.
GMOs came into existence with the development of the Flavor Saver tomato back in the 1970s. Then came soybean varieties and later cotton varieties in the early 1980s with genetic modifications.
Scientists soon learned how to modify plants to resist pests and diseases, and with the development of herbicide-resistant crops, the floodgates opened onto a whole new world of agriculture.
The crop that had the greatest impact in our area was cotton. We have long been a strong cotton area of the state and farmers welcomed the new technology with skepticism.
The early “Roundup Ready” cotton just didn’t quite yield as well as some of the old standard varieties. After the resistance to glyphosate herbicide (Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) was implanted into cotton varieties with better yields, the whole cotton industry was turned on its head.
Now there were cotton and soybeans that could be sprayed with one very safe herbicide that would kill virtually all of the weeds. A silver bullet, it was called. And for a while it really was.
Then some weeds pulled the genetic modification trick on the farmer and a generation of glyphosate-resistant weeds became the dominant population. The silver bullet had melted.
Unfortunately, the popularity of glyphosate as the sole weed-control agent caused many other chemical development companies to shut their doors and shelve their research. Companies began scrambling to restart research on new weed-control technologies and at the same time, they began looking at other genetic modifications to help plants tolerate the new herbicides they were developing.
Today we have crops (corn, cotton, soybeans, alfalfa) that have herbicide resistance built into their genetics. Crops now have stacked packages of herbicide resistance to three and four different weed-control chemicals. They also have insect resistance, disease-resistance genetics and drought-tolerance genes built into their systems, all of which have been tested thousands of times in hundreds of countries and found to be safe.
All of this technology comes with a price. Cotton seed that used to sell for $35 per bag now costs up to $650 per bag. While this is a huge increase, the benefit is that it saves the environment from the onslaught of many chemical applications that were necessary before the genetic revolution.
When I was a teenager spraying my uncle’s cotton, we sprayed it every week beginning at bloom with some very toxic chemicals, trying to keep the insects and worms from destroying the crop. Today we may make two or three applications for insect and worm control during the growing season, instead of 12 to 15. The plant does the heavy lifting through genetic modification.
With the advent of genetic technology, we were able to put aside many of the more toxic insecticides that we had to depend on to save our crops. Many of these we later learned had some pretty nasty side effects on farmers and farm workers exposed repeatedly to them.
Today we use much safer chemistry that is tested religiously, with an eye to user safety and environmental friendliness. Instead of spraying a chemical that kills everything in the field, including beneficial insects, many of our new insecticides are specific to one type of insect, leaving the good bugs alone.
We also depend heavily on a process called Integrated Pest Management, using cultural methods to mitigate our insect and disease issues before we switch to chemistry. It both useful and cost effective as a pest-management system.
While there are no totally safe pesticides, the threshold of danger has been dramatically lowered in modern agriculture.
Today’s agriculture is a $42 billion industry in South Carolina. It is a driving force in the economies of many local communities, and provides a way of life for farm families not enjoyed by their urban cousins.
It has morphed into a high-tech, high-cost industry that is drawing many young people back to the farm. But in order to pay the cost, most of our farms today are large by comparison to our grandfathers' operations.
Where once a 200-acre farm was considered large, today it is more like 2,000 acres. And if still a true family farm with several families participating, the acreage is more likely to need to be 5,000 acres.
These farmers take on millions of dollars in debt each year and risk it all on the weather and their knowledge. Sometime they win, and sometime, like the floods of 2015, they lose.
While there are virtually only a handful of farmers in the Legislature anymore, agriculture still enjoys the respect and support it deserves in our state. Most legislators can appreciate the hard work and risk farmers take every day in order to feed and clothe the world, and that support was evident when the legislators appropriated $40 million for farm relief after the floods of 2015.
They recognized that farm payments have been slashed, and crop insurance only covers a portion of crop losses, so they stepped up to the plate. No other state supported agriculture the way South Carolina did. It is a testament to the heritage and history of agriculture in South Carolina.
Agriculture faces many challenges in the future. Urban sprawl, water-use restrictions, the public fear of GMOs and the list goes on. Farmers have proven themselves a resilient lot, and I have confidence that the young generation of farmers now taking over the farm are up to the challenge.
Grandaddy would be proud.