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From seeds developed through biotechnology to "eye in the sky" cameras
pinpointing irrigation or pesticide needs, the world of agriculture has come
a long way from a man, a horse and a bag of seed, September 2004 by Mary
Farmers overseeing their fields and barns via computer monitor no longer
is a far-fetched notion. Remote control, robotics and computers all are
becoming involved in the tasks of planting seeds, feeding livestock and
While farmers still pride themselves on their calluses -- and many still
spend sun-up to sundown with their heels and their hands in the dirt --
technology has arrived in the world of agriculture. But the degree and
expense of participation is a decision made by individual farmers.
"It all comes down to farmers trying to be more efficient with their time,
their labor, their equipment and their money," said Robert Oberheim, manager
of Ag Progress Days, an annual event sponsored by Penn State's College of
The three-day event held last month in Rock Springs exhibited the latest
research and management practices and introduced visitors to new equipment
What's new on the horizon, Oberheim said, is increased computerization.
Computers are used to help planters accurately record and monitor plant
population and seed placement.
To farmers, Oberheim said, "That means money. It will reduce wasted seed and
it should also increase accuracy in plant population."
Depending on how many acres are being farmed, some equipment's cost can be
returned in one or two years, he said.
"More units are available from different companies now, and that should help
drive the cost down."
Harvesting is another area in which agriculture is being introduced to
computerization. Tasks can vary from determining the moisture in the hay
being baled to the moisture in the yield of the grain crop being harvested.
"Again, this means more money for the farmer, in that he is running the
machine to maximum efficiency by use of the computer," Oberheim said. "In
the past, he would have done it manually, stopping the machine, going in
back of the combine, then making changes manually. He can now change the
settings from the cab."
Technology will continue to play a big part in farming, Oberheim predicted.
"Almost everything I've talked about has come to the Midwest first," he
said, "and is working its way to the East."
All of these advances in farming, he said, are for the greater good of the
"The goal of technology is to make the farmer more profitable," he said.
Oberheim actively crop farms throughout the growing season. Farmers talk to
him about new advances and share their opinions. A trend now is for farmers
to share the costs of expensive equipment or to hire someone to perform a
service with a particular piece of machinery.
"It can be cheaper if the farmer does not have to invest $50,000 or $100,000
for a piece of equipment, but can spend $5,000 to have the job done."
Although it is not widespread, there a few farms in Pennsylvania putting
robotic milking to use, he said. While it can represent a $100,000
investment, robotic milking eliminates one of the dairy farmers biggest
chores and reduces labor needs.
"The cow accesses the robotic milker on its own," Oberheim said. "It's
IMAGES OF FARMING
Ag Progress Days is a good source of information for Don Fretts, director of
the Fayette County Cooperative Extension Agency. He attends the event, then
updates area farmers through newsletters.
Robotic milking is being looked at locally, he said, but the system is most
appealing, and financially justified, for herds numbering 200 and up.
Computer feeders, in which cows wear a chip that determines how much feed
they are to be given, are more common.
"Most commercial operators, livestock, dairy or whatever," he said, "are
using computer technology to balance feed."
Global positioning systems also are being discussed.
"But with our small fields, it's a real challenge to be cost-effective, for
one thing," he said.
GPS, a satellite navigation system, picks up transmitted codes and can help
farmers map their fields, track harvest records, direct trucks and determine
Nutrient Solutions in Agriculture in Lebanon County specializes in bringing
evolving technology to the fields.
GPS receivers and light bars, spokesman Marty Campfield said, can guide
application vehicles, reducing overlap and improving the accuracy of
application. GPS receivers also help farmers determine which specific
locations require fertilizer, weed control and water.
"There is less product waste and more profit for everyone involved,"
The company also uses mapping software so producers can record what they've
grown and what they've applied, from seed to fertilizer to crop protection
chemicals. A computer system links directly to maps of individual fields.
"They can literally just click on a field to instantly see the history of
everything they've done there," Campfield said.
The company also offers aerial photography for mapping, through a
geographical information software package, to trace the boundaries of fields
"They can accurately obtain acreages and square footages and thereby make
calculations for seed and fertilizer," he said.
Campfield said the costs for such services are "coming down all the time."
"We are moving toward robotics," he said. "We have a system called 'auto
steer,' where the driver's hands are free until he reaches the end of the
field and turns."
That option is attractive for farmers who use their cabs as impromptu
offices because they can make cell phone calls and answer e-mail while
driving, he said.
HIGH TECH MULTITASKING
Louie Diamond has incorporated computerization into running his Nicholson
Township, Fayette County, dairy farm. Although the technology is not brand
new -- he's had it for about five years -- he believes his farm is one of
the few in the area with a "sort gate" system. He attributed that to both
the expense and the fact that most smaller farms would not have need for the
With 400 cows, being able to track animals -- and basically stop one in its
tracks -- is a time-saver for him.
Cows wear transponders around their necks to identify them. If Diamond wants
to stop a cow for breeding purposes or to provide medical help, he can
program the gate to identify her, close around her, direct her into a
holding pen and allow the rest of the cows to proceed through the barn.
"I don't even have to be in the barn," Diamond said. "I can set it for
(milking time). She'll be waiting for me in the morning."
The system's ability to keep computerized records of a cow's breeding
history and milking production has cut down on paperwork.
"We use it every day," he said. "I don't know what we would do without it.
I'm sure it's paid for itself over time."
Another new technique in farming is high tunnel production, which several
area extension agents described as basically a hybrid of a plastic covered
greenhouse. Its benefit is an extension of the growing season, particularly
for high cash value crops.
Penn State has developed an aggressive education program to acquaint its
extension agencies with the technology, and in turn pass it on to growers,
students, master gardeners and the public.
Generally Quonset-shaped, the tunnels are constructed of metal bows and
metal posts. In addition to providing frost protection, they can elevate
temperatures significantly enough to increase planting harvesting times.
The tunnels have water service for crop irrigation, but no electrical
service or heating system. Ventilation is provided by rolling up the plastic
In Somerset County, a group of Amish growers have put the high tunnels to
Miguel Saviroff, extension educator with the Somerset County Cooperative
Extension Agency, said the group grows tomatoes, cabbages, other vegetables
and flowers. "It helps extend Somerset County's 120-day growing season," he
Some Somerset-area farmers also are using Roundup Ready corn, a genetically
engineered seed manufactured to be resistant to the herbicide of that name.
The company that markets Roundup-resistant crop seeds has sparked a bit of a
controversy on the Internet. Some sites accuse Monsanto of producing a
product that allows it to sell more of its herbicide. Monsanto has for
several years produced corn, soybeans, cotton and canola seeds it promotes
as "herbicide-tolerant" and "insect-protected."
Saviroff said he has seen some of the corn crop grown with the "designer"
"And they look beautiful," he said. "The plants are growing so tall and
Farmers often seek out varieties of produce seed based on genetics, Saviroff
said, looking for those that will resist what some perceive as a necessary
evil -- weed killers and insecticides.
According to the Monsanto Web site, the company has received review
clearances for its Roundup Ready seeds from the USDA and the FDA.
Fred Slezak, who operates the family-run Lone Maple Farms near Crabtree, has
planted Roundup Ready corn for several years. It's both a labor and time
saver, he said.
"In addition to everything else, we (farmers) have a labor shortage," he
said. That's driving the technology."
Slezak tries to temper his enthusiasm for technology with caution.
Roundup, he said, is probably the most used herbicide on the market. While
it works well, he said, its increased use means an increased opportunity for
resistance to develop.
But one benefit may be elimination of chemicals seeping into water sources.
"My understanding is that once (Roundup) hits the soil, it's basically
inactivated," he said. "We should have less pesticide going into the ground
or surface water. I think that's important for everyone."
He said primary opposition to the product several years ago came from the
"The European market is very protective of its agricultural industry,"
His opinion is that opposing the genetically engineered produce allowed some
Europeans markets to block some U.S. imports.
Slezak, who owns 400 acres and leases several hundred more, grows soybean,
oats, wheat and barley, but corn is his main crop.
The cheapest price for a bag of traditional corn seed might be $50, Slezak
said. Roundup Ready sells for about twice that.
"I think it's a bargain," he said. "I used to never say I could guarantee
something. ... This is the closest we've ever come to guaranteeing weed
"We've had some ups and downs with genetic engineering," he said. "But I
really see a lot of potential here."
In his Hothouse Floral greenhouse, owner Gene Hudock has for several years
used a Hamilton robotic transplanter. It speeds delivery of seedlings from
flat to soil and reduces labor needed for the task by more than half.
The South Strabane Township, Washington County, operator installed the
system several years ago, at a cost of $45,000.
"This is more efficient and quicker than we humans are," Hudock said. "And
it's hard to find people to work."
The transplanter can empty a flat in minutes, a task that might take a
laborer hours. The system is not very common yet in the industry because not
all growers see it as cost effective, he said.
"You have to modernize just to stay competitive," he said.
The transplanter was damaged in flooding last year and has not yet been
Hudock misses its workhorse presence at his 50,000-square-foot business.
In the past, he said, five to seven workers stood by conveyor belts and
manually transplanted the flats' contents. Now two people can do the job.
"It's a really efficient machine," said Guy Metzger, extension agent for
Armstrong County. "I think that's probably the (greenhouse industry's)
cutting edge. ... Our (Penn State's) philosophy in teaching people to use
this is ... it's better management."
Brian Snyder, executive director of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable
Agriculture, sees the result of some technological developments as "taking
the farmer away from the process."
PASA is a nonprofit organization of consumers and farmers dedicated to
saving family farming. Its members count among their concerns preservation
of natural resources and the environment.
"My bias would not be that high technology would make farming better in
general," Snyder said.
Advances such as robotic milking may make the process easier.
"Does it make a farm more profitable? That's questionable," he said.
Financial investment in certain equipment for an operation dependent upon
volatile milk prices can result in debt-ridden farmers, he said.
Snyder said one PASA member, a Mercer County resident, recently installed a
solar-powered irrigation system funded through a Department of Environmental
Protection grant. While solar power itself may not be new, Darrell Frey's
application "makes a lot of sense," Snyder said.
"The sun is always there. If it's not, we have a bigger problem. But it can
be a bit of a hedge against (increasing) electricity prices."
Snyder said GPS farming may not be very beneficial in the East because the
fields are not as flat and open as in other areas. And the benefit of some
technology -- freeing up a farmer for other tasks -- raises food safety
issues, he added.
"Machines just do what they are told," he said. "If they are told by mistake
to do something wrong and nobody is there to monitor it, it just goes on and
on. ... Mistakes result from the removal of farmers from farms.
"Technological advances are often helpful to farmers. That needs to be said.
But a lot of that farming is being pushed by those making that technology."
Mary Pickels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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