Precision ag traces roots to mid-century

Y'all might find this hard to believe, given my sophisticated demeanor, but I was raised in the country.

The first house I remember living in was a five-room frame structure with no underpinning and no indoor toilet.

The only time we had running water was during a storm, when thunder would rattle the tin roof so hard the nails would shake loose and allow rain to seep into the non-insulated attic and then into whichever room was unfortunate enough to be situated underneath the brief but substantial deluge.

We always rejoiced when rain poured into the kitchen because we could catch it in pots and pans and use it for cooking and washing, which relived us of the onerous task of hauling water from the well in heavy buckets.

The community at the time was comprised of poor dirt farmers, mill workers and a few ne'er do-wells who made scant livings trading horses, mules, old cars, shotguns and pocket knives back and forth to one another until they either got tired of it, wore out the merchandise or got caught in somebody's living room restocking their wares.

We were sort of a combination of the first two categories and had little truck with the trading guild, although the lifestyle had more than a little to recommend it to a youngster who found the working end of a weeding hoe uncomfortable in his hands.

(The blisters interfered with my uncanny ability to turn a double play, even at a young age. Not to mention that I was not very good at making deals. I tried it a time or two and always ended up with one too many broken-bladed pocketknives and one less baseball.)

My dad was a mill worker and part-time farmer. He always raised a big garden, partly for the vegetables my mom would can and freeze and partly to provide summertime entertainment for my older brother and me. My brother was no more adept at wielding a hoe than I was and decided early on that teaching school would be a sight better calling than either farming or working in a hot, noisy cotton mill. He's completed better than 30 years of his teaching sentence and will be pardoned as soon as his last child finishes college.

I could never decide on a respectable career and became a journalist.

Our next-door neighbor farmed for a living. He raised a little corn, mostly to feed Kate, an ornery mule he employed to work his cotton patch. And, as I think back on his farming practices, old Albert Vaden was the first farmer I recall who used precision agriculture technology.

He didn't have a Global Positioning System mounted on old Kate. This would have been several years before Sputnik and decades before satellites and other space junk became as common in the nighttime sky as constellations.

But he had a method of avoiding trouble spots in his cotton patch, and old Kate cooperated fully. Mr. Vaden hated bermudagrass. Well, he actually hated having to deal with it. It had a tendency to wrap around his plow shanks and impede the progress of the implement through the red clay soil.

He also surmised, possibly accurately, that pulling up bermudagrass roots from one section of the field and replanting them in another would do nothing but spread the pest across the entire acreage. Kate, for her part, had to pull harder to drag a plow through the tangle of bermudagrass roots and rhizomes.

Personally, I think the old gentlemen used the mule's plight as an excuse to employ precision agriculture technology.

It worked this way. Mr. Vaden meticulously noted where patches of bermudagrass typically choked out his cotton. When he came to these well-mapped areas, he simply raised his cultivating plow, tilted it sideways and skipped over the grass bed. Left it alone to grow unimpeded into the row middles where it took root and spread into an ever-widening island of pale green. The simplicity of the technology inspired me.

Unfortunately, my dad, being less technologically inclined, would not allow my brother and me to employ this modern method in his ever-widening garden plot/entertainment center. When he discovered a patch of bermudagrass in the bush beans, he insisted that we put those ill-fitting hoe handles to work rooting it out.

Once again, science was thwarted by an insistence on sticking with the old ways!

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