Tuesday, May 26, 2015

City Mom - Spring Planting Tour

I was chosen to participate in the Illinois Farm Families City Mom program for 2015.  I have chosen to write about my experiences while taking part in the Spring Planting Tour, which happened in early May.

(Five Things That I Leaned About Farming & Technology)

I garden

And what I do is small potatoes compared to some

I have a plot of land that is 20x30 in my back yard that we grow vegetables in.  It's banked by a few mulberry bushes and some "wild" (as in we did not plant them) black cap raspberries.

My goal, every year, is to grown, harvest and preserve what we will have on our Thanksgiving table and can enough tomatoes to last us one full year.  Some years are better than others.  Last year sucked.

So, when I had the opportunity to experience how a real farmer plants for production, I jumped at the opportunity.  Because - technology, and COOL! and...wait, I get to sit in a tractor?  SCORE.

My perception of the area farmer, who literally live about 15 minutes south of me, has been that of lacking technology and rural.  So, yeah, that's my profiling in a nutshell.

I got to spend the day at the Meyer & Saathoff Family Farm in Manteno.  They are a 1200 acre corn & soybean farm.  This specific farm has been operating, in some fashion, for over 100 years.  Here are some things that I learned regarding farming and technology.

1) GPS

They are using GPS to plot out their planting, taking into account the soil types and land topography to determine what, if anything, should be planted to guarantee a better crop yield.  Overall this equates to lower food prices.  If field corn is more efficiently grown, then anything that requires it will be cheaper.  We live in the bread basket of the world and food is so accessible and cheap, advanced technology being used in agricultural is one reason why.

So, picture a football field.  Lets pretend that we are going to plant some corn on it.  But wait, there is a water shed area that runs through the field.  That's not a great place to plant corn, the water will wash the seed away or expose it for an animal to eat it.  But, we don't want to leave it bear.  We will loose all of the top soil.  Ah, lets plant some grass there.  It'll keep the top soil intact and slow the water run off when it rains.
The GPS devise on the tractor can take that into consideration and then plant the corn seeds for maximum yield.

GPS system in the tractor

2) Isolation
The farm that we visited planted soybean and field corn for use in animal feed.  I got to touch the seeds and see them in the planting hoppers on the back of the tractor. Visually, I likened the colorful seeds to comparing a regular aspirin to one that is coated to not hurt while it's dissolving.  It's coated with "stuff" for a reason.  By coating the seeds prior to planting farmers are managing their crop for the whole season.  They are encapsulated with fertilizer and nutrients, and pest and weed prevention is done at the planting level, not across the field by randomly spraying.

Coated seeds in the hopper ready for planting
The process of crop production starts 18 months in advance of planting.  What will be planted and which seeds will be used.  The goal of the farm we visited was for 250 bushels of corn to be produced per acre.  

By taking care of the soil health on the farm crop production can be managed through genetics and technology.  Application of anything to the plant is specific and isolated.  This allows less chemicals being applied to the soil for GMO crop production.

Taking the soil makeup into consideration (is it too loose here, a little harder here) the seeds are planted at exactly the right depth around April 15th so that harvest can happen around Labor Day. Root production and plant growth are taken into consideration when doing this.

Nick Saathoff explaining crop rotation and crop yield 

This precision can also be seen by the fact that soil samples are taken to produce a "report card of the soil" for effective production of crop and application of nutrients and fertilizer.
Again, this idea of a farmer being sloppy, ignorant or haphazard in spray application is being nullified for me.

4)GMO's (why?)
Well, at this specific farm the farmer, Nick, said "Farmers have the weather and the stock market left to chance.  GMO sees are "insured" with propagation rate to guarantee a crop."

Why the different colors?  The pink are GMO seeds, the purple are non-seeds.
Planted to manage environmental sustainability on the farm. 
We learned that GMO seeds are being produced not just for pest resistance, but for crop production through environmental issues (think drought).
It's this specific topic, about GMO seeds, where I kind of hit a wall.  I understand everything that I'm learning about GMO's, but I still question - just because you can, should you?   ...and, I don't know.
I do know this, though, there are currently only 8 crops commercially grown from GMO seeds in the US: corn (field & sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash.
*amending to note that I was informed that there are two additional crops that are also grown from GMO seeds, Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes (5/28/15)*
Now, I want you to pause for a moment, you know all those labels at the grocery store that are saying they are GMO free?  Weren't they to begin with?  This is not as an extensive of a list as I thought.  Is what you and I are seeing in the grocery store advertising or nutritional information?

5)Advanced Technology
So, farming went from feeding the farm, or back when the Constitution was written you needed something like 19 farmers to feed their families plus one more person. To a time when farming and ranching is at about 2% of the population, and it's now a global market.  Obviously, technology has played a real role in this progress.
There is a real need for passion in the field of technology and wanting to help farmers utilize it.  Nick had mentioned how cool it would be to use drones in agricultural.  Not only to monitor crop production, but also to spot apply nutrients and pesticides.  The ability to micro manage the fields is being sought.

Why yes, that is an IPad being used to show land topography and crop grid for planting.

What I left with after this tour was a desire to learn more about the need for agricultural technology and how important technology is in farming.  The fact that farmers are using IPads and GPS to help them better manage their fields totally shoots my idea of some guy in overalls reading the Farmer's Almanac to figure out the right time to plant.
It was a very educational and enlightening experience. It was interesting to really see how many "hats" a farmer wears and what really goes into managing a farm.  But, at the root of it all that "(this) farm is more than land and crops.  It is our family heritage and future."  There is something comforting to me in this statement.    

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