Farmers Wonder About Their Future as Technology Increasingly Takes Over Their Tasks
CLYDE, Ohio On today's farm, tractors and combines are bigger, faster and smarter. Soil tests and topography maps give farmers more information. Crops are more resistant to disease and pests.
The result: Farmers are producing record crops despite using less land.
Some say the economics of farming -- low prices for grain and livestock -- are pushing farmers to produce more and expand operations while forcing smaller farmers out of business. Others contend it is technology driving the revolution.
Bobby Moser, dean of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, sees evidence of both.
"What you've seen is a decline in the number of farmers, but farm size has increased," Moser said. "It's all because these farmers are adopting these new technologies into their operations and that allows them to farm more land and increase production."
Barrett Zimmerman, who farms part time when he's not teaching high school agriculture in Clyde, said new technology may have brought about unintended results.
"We've sort of shot ourselves in the foot," he said. "We've become so productive that the only way to survive is to get bigger."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service predicts 2004 net farm income will reach $73.7 billion nationwide, beating the record set in 2003 by nearly 25 percent. It's a creation of two back-to-back years of exceptionally large harvests for major crops and unusually high prices for livestock and milk.
Technology promises to offer more benefits soon. Vegetable farmers in California are using a new irrigation method to increase production of bell peppers and melons. Ranchers in the West hope electronic tags will stop mad cow disease.
Ohio Farm Bureau President Bob Peterson said the intertwining of agriculture and technology is no different than what's happening in all industries.
Nearly half of Ohio's farmers use a computer to maintain financial records, track market prices or make business deals, according to an Ohio State survey released a year ago.
One of three farmers use some type of precision farming practice, such as grid soil sampling, combine yield monitors or guidance tools like Global Positioning Systems.
The problem, said John Ellerman, executive director of the Ohio Farmers Union, is that the cost of technology is driving many small and midsize farms out of business.
"Farmers will buy the latest technology, and then realize they don't have enough acres to spread those costs out, so they need to expand," Ellerman said. "It's like a dog chasing its tail -- they just can't keep up."
Once an operation becomes a large-scale farm, "you end up managing people rather than the cows. It becomes a very different business," said Jeremy Foltz, associate director of the University of Wisconsin's Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.
Peterson thinks there still is a place for both large and small farms.
A growing number of fruit and vegetable farmers near cities and suburbs sell directly to groceries and restaurants, including organic farmers.
"There are tremendous opportunities in agriculture," Peterson said. "But it may not be doing the same thing you always did."
Supporters of large-scale farming say advances in technology also are making farming more environmentally friendly. Chemical sprayers now come with computer-controlled nozzles that make sure the chemicals are applied with greater precision and less waste.
"My grandfather would have fertilized a field by hauling manure out of the barn," Peterson said. "My son, if he farms, he'll be able to apply fertilizer based on individual plants."
Opponents of large-scale farming, though, say that putting a large number of animals under one roof creates more livestock waste and pollution.
"Technology is turning what was agriculture into industry," said Chris Cooper, spokesman for the New York-based GRACE Factory Farm Project, which works to end factory farms.
Rex Spray, who farms near Mount Vernon in central Ohio, began experimenting with organic farming in the mid-1970s. No chemicals. No Global Positioning Systems. No genetically enhanced crops.
"When I was a kid everybody farmed this way," said Spray, 74. "I'm not against modern technology, but I think a lot of it is unnecessary. It again goes back to the quality of the product."
But other farmers are embracing the latest technology.
Zimmerman, the high school teacher in Clyde, shows his students how to operate a Global Positioning System and computer software to make maps of fields and determine how much fertilizer is needed.
They analyze data gathered by a yield monitor to determine how the fertilizer affects corn production in the fields they tend.
"My friends think it's all physical work," said Christopher Dwight, a senior. "They think I sit on a tractor all day. It's not really like that."
Source: Associated Press