It wasn't that many years ago that attending a farm conference or workshop was all about planting, managing and harvesting a conventional crop.
Many farmers might remember the 1960s when John Deere overtook International harvester as the largest farm equipment company. The IH Model M was being replaced by six cylinder workhorses and the future seemed bright in the world of row crop farming.
Just like hand picking cotton and cutting wheat with a sickle were replaced by mechanization, soon farmers were tossing their hoes in favor of chemical treatments to control weeds. Farm conferences and workshops showcased equipment safety and helped farmers learn to operate gas-powered spray equipment to apply new pesticides.
But as the 60s gave way to the 70s and the 80s overtook the 90s, agricultural technology started taking on new meaning again. By the turn of the century, new and better equipment was coming on the market and biotech crops and treated seeds were the big issues.
In recent years, technological advancements have accelerated to a point where almost every day we hear about new and better ways to farm and about the tools available—or soon to be—to make farming more efficient and productive.
For instance, Charles Davidson at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, reported last week in an article entitled Technology Reshapes Agriculture that when cotton farmer Joe Boddiford is in Atlanta, 200 miles from his Southeast Georgia farm, he can operate his irrigation systems from his smartphone. He can also turn on the water to a particular set of nozzles or shut them off. He can activate an underground well and monitor the entire system.
Boddiford grows cotton, peanuts, and corn on 2,200 acres about 60 miles from Savannah.
Not far away, in another example of technology being used by today's modern farmers, Alabama cotton grower Larkin Martin also relies on precision agriculture technologies. Monitors installed on cotton pickers at her farm measure the yields at three-foot intervals.
While precision agriculture is not new by any stretch of the imagination, the pace of ag technology investment and research and development (R&D) has greatly accelerated in recent times, and shows no sign of slowing down. Where precision ag has largely been reserved for larger commercial farming operations, even smaller, family-owned and operated farms are embracing the technology—and the price tag that goes with it. This is largely because new-technology farming, while requiring a hefty investment in most cases, is lowering input costs and increasing yield potential.
PRECISION AG BENEFITS
Most farmers are aware of the benefits of precision agriculture, but technology researchers and developers say more and greater tools are already on the horizon. They range from newer satellite mapping systems, the evolving uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and even new applications and appliances related to the so-called Internet of things. In southern Louisiana, for example, red lasers are being used to guide leveling equipment across rice fields to optimize drainage and irrigation projects.
Davidson notes in his article that "there is no shortage of ag tech aspirants. Established agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Deere & Company have been joined by well-funded Silicon Valley startups and mainstream technology firms such as Microsoft, Fujitsu, and Yamaha."
And as more technology companies deliver better and more affordable tools for the farm and ranch, more producers are taking the leap into the technology market. Hi-tech engineers point to robotics as the next big development for agriculture, bringing in science-fiction concepts of farming once limited to the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury novels. From smart phones to silicon chip sensors to robots that can gently pick strawberries without bruising them, the future of farming has already arrived, and the possibilities seem endless.
THE LEARNING CURVE
But what about understanding how to use all these new technologies?
Jason Hackett, News & Media Services Director at Kansas State University, acknowledges technology changes rapidly, and keeping up with those changes can be a daunting task for farmers.
"For farmers, keeping up with all the changes in equipment, analysis methods and best practices can make a major difference in their productivity and, ultimately, their bottom line," he says.
But he admits that demanding schedules and long work hours prevent most producers from spending enough time to stay on top of the latest technology. He says that's why Kansas State is staging the upcoming Ag Technologies Conference Jan. 19-20 in Junction City, Kansas. The conference is sponsored by the Kansas Ag Research & Technology Association (KARTA) and K-State Research and Extension.
It's not the first time the tech conference has been held. Recognizing the need to help farmers stay abreast of new technology development, the event has become an annual affair. KARTA designs the annual conference to be a thought-provoking forum for the exchange of information about new and old technologies with a focus on supporting scientifically valid on-farm research efforts and increasing overall farm business profitability.
"From aerial crop-monitoring drones to driverless tractors, the present and future of Kansas agriculture takes center stage at the Kansas Agricultural Technologies Conference," Hackett reports.
According to Kansas State educators, the need to understand and embrace technology has become so important for producers that funds raised through registration fees will be used to provide 2017 research grants and technology workshops that are held in locations across the state.
To register for the conference, interested farmers can contact their nearest Kansas State University Extension and Research office.
For farmers in other states, Hackett says technology workshops and conferences are being held by Extension services in many areas, so he recommends contacting your county agent or Extension office for a full schedule of technology-related workshops and conferences.
A quick search on the Internet turned up a few major agriculture tech workshops, conferences and summits, including the 2017 Agriculture Technology Innovation Summit, which takes place Feb. 22 (2017) at the University of Illinois at Urbana Research Park. Also, Ohio State University plays host to the 2017 Farm Science Review Sept. 19-21 in London, Ohio, featuring technology exhibits and workshops. The same can be said of the World AG Expo in Tulare, California, where topics will include farm equipment, chemicals, communications, and new technology.
While farmers in the years ahead will continue to find many workshops and conferences that deal with more conventional topics like seeds, soil health, irrigation practices, marketing, and trade, they can also expect to find a greater offering of technology education opportunities.