I saw your recent tweet about farmers. You retweeted a video of some guy artfully throwing whatever he was picking onto a wagon and discarding the bucket all at the same time. I have to admit I was somewhat impressed with his skill; it’s more efficient than I ever was.
But you weren’t impressed. Instead you disparaged farmers for not wanting to come into the 19th century, and threw out the ever-popular subsidy criticism. I had to read it a few times though, because I honestly didn’t understand it. Do you really think farmers are opposed to science and technology? Is it your impression that our industry is backwards? Your conclusions are so wrong that I don’t even understand them.
Let me be incredibly clear: agriculture is one of those most innovative, science-driven, and tech-savvy sectors in the economy. And that’s not because we all carry smart phones in the tractor.
Have you ridden in a tractor recently? I’m guessing not. It’s quite impressive to see all the screens and sensors and mechanisms monitoring the tractor and planter as the work is done. The tractor is connected to GPS technology. That allows the tractor to actually steer itself. If we’re planting, the planter can tell us how many seeds are going in the ground; whether the equipment is malfunctioning or not at peak performance; and it even measures the depth at which the seeds are placed in the soil. As we know from scientific research, the precision of these metrics is incredibly important.
Our combines are similarly impressive. As we cross the field picking our corn or soybeans, the combine and equipment are collecting data about the field. For example, we can tell how many bushels per acre we’re getting. And the data produces a map that shows us the average yields for the entire farm. We can use that field map to evaluate why we didn’t get peak yields on some parts of the farm, and make adjustments accordingly.
But it’s not just our equipment–our seeds are high-tech too. Scientists have learned how to make genetic edits to our crops, improving their chances of weathering harsh conditions, combatting pests, and increasing yields. In fact, Round-Up Ready varieties of corn and soybeans have been around for over 20 years. They allow us to apply herbicides to eliminate resource-competitive weeds and reduce the overall amount of pesticides we’re using.
I’ll admit not all of our crops are this high tech. There are certainly farms that are experimenting with equipment that can harvest fruit and vegetable commodities. But that’s harder because a lot of those crops are more delicate. As I’m sure you can understand, hand-picking a tomato more easily prevents bruising than a big machine. But we’re certainly innovating in these areas and I have no doubt that we’ll one day have the equipment necessary to complete these tasks. Though, I’ll tell you, there’s nothing better than picking a cantaloupe by hand, cutting it open, and biting into that juicy, warmed-by-the-sun meat. You just can’t replicate that.
By the way, animal agriculture is also innovating. We have machines that can automatically milk our dairy cows. Some farmers use monitors on their cattle to track metrics about them. And we’re even utilizing biotechnology to engineer better animals, such as cows that don’t develop horns.
As to subsidies, I think you’ll find we’ve come a long way. We no longer pay farmers direct payments just for growing a certain commodity in a certain field. In fact, we ditched that quite awhile ago. Today, government assistance mostly comes in the form of crop insurance. This is insurance that gives farmers coverage for loss of crops or loss of revenue. It’s similar to the type of insurance that a variety of companies obtain for their non-farm businesses. While the federal government helps pay the premiums, farmers also contribute, giving them skin in the game. These crop-insurance programs have been incredibly effective at providing protection for farmers and keeping them in business when things go south.
All of that said, I won’t tell you that all farmers are shining beacons of perfection. There are bad apples, just like in all businesses. But those are the exceptions. As a farmer’s daughter, I couldn’t be more proud of my farm background. As my brother starts to take the reins from my parents, I’m excited to see how he uses science and technology over the next 50 years.
So I’m sorry that you have a skewed and (dare I say it) misinformed view of agriculture. We’re not stuck in the 1800’s, we’re leading in the 21st century. I invite you to come visit my family’s farm. Talk to my dad and my brother and learn about the awesome things we’re doing. I’m sure you’ll be impressed, and I can’t wait until you tweet about your visit.