Country Living Series

Monday, March 2, 2015

High-tech agriculture

Here's a fascinating article I stumbled upon regarding the nightmare of high-tech farm equipment.

I know it comes as a shock to some people, but most farmers no longer use a horse-drawn plow.

Let's face it, these time-tested methods might work to support a family farm, but it is literally impossible to support American agriculture with old methods.

So many professional farmers have gone high-tech. In fact, the technology (and price) of new professional-grade tractors is staggering beyond belief.

Some of these specialized machines can cost upward of a million dollars.

But when is technology TOO much?

The article discusses how computerized malfunctions in these technological marvels can strand a farmer for days during the critical window of plowing, seeding, fertilizing, or harvesting.

The article states, "[The farmer] just wanted a better way to fix a minor hydraulic sensor. Every time the sensor blew, the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor. So for two days, Dave’s tractor lies fallow. And so do his fields."

(Say what you will about a horse-drawn plow...)

"Of course, the world is changing, and that’s especially true in the world of agriculture," says the article. "Most mechanical problems can’t be solved with duct tape and baling wire anymore. Regulations are stricter, agribusiness is more consolidated, resources are more scarce, and equipment is infinitely more complicated and proprietary. Small family farmers like Dave face challenges that even the most industrious Maker would find hard to 'hack.'

"What used to be done by hand is now managed at scale by giant machine. And that equipment is expensive -- equivalent to the price of a small house (Dave’s mid-ranged tractor is worth over $100,000). New, elaborate computer systems afford the kind of precision and predictability that farmers 20 years ago couldn’t have even imagined. But they’ve also introduced new problems."

Let's face it, farmers need force multipliers. In the old days, horses, oxen, or other livestock provided that force. Today, those who are the hands-on agricultural producers are become more and more scarce, yet are called upon to feed greater and greater numbers of people. About 2% of Americans feed 98% of the populace. They simply can't do it with horse-and-plow any longer.

We live on the edge of the vast Palouse, a region of hills and swales that are heavily cultivated with a number of dryland crops (around here, mostly wheat). To drive through mile after mile after mile of these hills makes you realize how massive a job it is to cultivate it all.

Tractors are no longer big mechanized horses. They're computer-programmed to the nth degree to guide the farmer toward precision adjustment of soil types, moisture, fertility, and endless other variables.

In theory this allows the farmer to save both time and money when it comes to applying seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. In reality, though, the farmer often goes into debt for a $100,000 machine that, when it malfunctions, is a $100,000 piece of useless junk until such time as an expert can be called to the scene to revive it.

There are endless urban stereotypes of the dumb hick farmer, but I'm here to tell you most farmers are sharp, adaptable, creative, and resourceful. Most are also pretty decent mechanics. But they're not computer programmers, nor should they have to be. Their minds and attention should be focused on the proper cultivation, maintenance, and harvesting of crops -- not getting a degree in computer programming simply to run their tractor.

As the article notes, these kinds of tractors are increasingly a liability, not an asset. "There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix."

I'm the first to admit I'm a Luddite, but maybe it's time to tone down the high tech. Just because something CAN be "technologized" doesn't necessarily mean it SHOULD. Just sayin'.


  1. It may come as no surprise, but government and EPA laws and regulations drive a lot of the complexity in these tractors just like they do with the automobile industry. Not sure it's possible to build a purely mechanical diesel engine that could meet all of their requirements. Sure wish it could meet all of the farmer's requirements!

    1. Exactly, most of the additional technology is driven by tighter and tighter emissions requirements and while the machine probaby *could* still work when that sensor fails it can't stay within the emissions requirements and so legally it's not permitted to do so.
      Unfortunately machines are not fitted with an "In case of TEOTWAWKI switch".

    2. Yep. Thought the same thing. Some years ago, my '99 Ford diesel p/u just stopped dead, in the middle of the road, at 45 mph. I pulled over, got it restarted, and promptly drove it to the mechanics even though the gauges perfectly fine. turns out the cam shaft SENSOR was failing, so the onboard computer shut everything down. Of course there was nothing wrong the actual cam shaft, just the $#!@ sensor monitoring it.

      Steve Davis
      Anchorage, Alaska

  2. A GPS controlled Combine and the precision of that can add 10 extra rows to your crop. I believe some large combines are leased, not purchased.

    But you are correct, 2 days "down" to get the combine fixed when weather is coming is a problem.

    DWLee3 in Bend, Oregon

  3. All of my neighbors are professional farmers. Around here though even the pros are considered small timers compared to the much larger operations in other parts of the country. They all have new tractors and combines with the GPS but all of them still have all their old equipment too.

    They look at my operation like a museum to be honest. Everytime I pick up a "new" piece of equipment or tractor they all have to come by and reminisce about the one their grand dad had way back when and then explain to me how to use it or what quirks to expect. I suspect however if they were much larger operations they wouldn't be able to fall back on the older stuff as easily though.

  4. I thought you might appreciate this video that combines the old and the new. When everything works and it all comes together it can be very fulfilling in more ways than originally planned.

  5. Replies
    1. Way cool!

      I think Becky deserves the Guiness Book of World Records award for the most machine-sewed quilt blocks ever sewn in a working tractor! :)

      A. McSp

  6. (What's a luddite? I'm going to go look it up. I'll be right back... Okay. I'm back. I know what a luddite is now. I've been hearing that term a lot lately. Trying to decide if I am one or not...)

    Years ago, I was employed in an industry with deadlines so harsh, they were called "drop deads."

    But, there's no deadline like a Mother Nature deadline. She's the boss. Plant on time. Harvest on time. Miss one of those deadlines and you don't eat.

    Very thought-provoking subject.

    Just Me

  7. Just finished watching on Youtube "Wartime Farms" about Britain's need for home produced food during WWII. I didn't realize most food, lumber, flax was imported prior to WWII. Anyway, mechanization of farming was introduced big time as were problems when the machinery broke down. Same as today. However what is different is that many more people had to farm to feed the population.

    It worried me when I read that 2% of the population feeds the rest of us. What would happen to our food supply if farmers couldn't get the necessary parts for 2 weeks or 2 months instead of 2 days? Just another reason to provide for my own family as much as possible.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  8. As an old COBOL programmer and ending an IT executive, it never ceases to amaze me how many technical advances are and were a solution looking for a problem. Quite obviously that has spilled over to the farming/food production industries. I now live in a small farming community, and I see many farmers using equipment originating after WWII and are quite proud of it. Technology is a double edged sword. It must be used carefully and absolutely needs a low tech back-up plan.

    Carl in the UP.

    1. Great comment.

      Just Me

  9. You didn't even address the problem of these behemoths compacting the soil as they pass over, which in and of itself is an problem to be solved, in a never ending circle of chemical applications spread by big machines, etc. Don't know what the answer is, but with some old-fashioned Yankee initiative I'm sure it could be solved.

  10. This is not about farmer-control by John Deere. It is about food-control by the federal government. John Deere did not make the law, the Feds made it, unconstitutionally I might add. John Deere will not fine, arrest and incarcerate the farmer for changing the timing on his own tractor, the Feds will. Crazy you say? OK, I dare you to modify the emissions controls on any vehicle you own.

    Why would government want to control the people’s food? Catherine Bertini, UN World Food Program Executive Director says it best. Quoting, "Food is power. We use it to change behavior. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.”

    To the naysayers, I admit that we and the like-minded among us could be wrong. I believe the difference is that we (and our loved ones) are prepared to be wrong. Are yours?

    Montana Guy

  11. 'some may call that bribery.'
    i call it blackmail.

  12. The more specialized the technology, the more dependent it is on maintenance and solutions which can only be supplied from elsewhere. It assumes a highly developed and stable system that ensures that supplies and personnel are readily available. Look at any of the areas of the word now locked in civil war or unrest and ponder how well such advanced technology would fare in such a circumstance.

  13. When is technology too much ? thats easy when it kills your bottom line , when you have a 5 year old high tech piece of equipment thats allways down you have no bottom line , just acres of red ink . Try to sell a used high tech machine IF you can find a buyer , a thirty year old tractor fetches more money , decade old combines are broken for parts , as anonymous says , high tech machenery is a solution looking for a problem .