It wasn’t very long ago that the word “farmer” conjured up an image of an older gentleman in denim overalls riding on an old, cabless green tractor, dragging a single plow across his little field by a red barn full of chickens, pigs, cows and horses. This is the image we are raised with; the expectation most children had when or if they ever visited a farm. Technology? For farmers? No way.
The reality is far different. Today, our farm, like most others, utilizes technology beyond the wildest dreams of farmers a mere 20 years ago. Advanced GPS automatically steers our equipment within 2-4 inch accuracy up and down the fields. A combine automatically controls the height of its header to cut just the right amount of straw, and can even control its speed to keep feeding the crop in at a consistent rate. Our sprayer wirelessly sends application data to a cloud program called JDLink, where we can view our field maps from anywhere in the world. We use sophisticated computer software to analyse maps from satellites, electrical conductivity maps and harvest data to generate variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications to our crops. And all of this is really just scratching the surface; it is really just the beginning.
The fact is that agriculture is riding a technology boom unprecedented in history, greater even than the industrial revolution. The changes don’t stop there, however. As many older farmers exit the industry without anyone to take over their operation, more and more land comes available. So, naturally, the farms that do survive to the next generation continue to grow. Farms that were only 1,000 acres 20 years ago are now ten or twenty times that size. Men and women that were once looking after two or three crops on a couple of sections of land are now managing multi-million dollar businesses with various employees, crops and equipment lines.
How do farmers keep up with these changing trends? How do they stay ahead of the technology curve, and somehow stay fluid and profitable at the same time? The key is really rather simple: farmers never stop learning.
Every winter, farmers spend countless hours attending meetings and conventions, pouring through magazines and literature, participating in online forums, and talking to neighbours and colleagues to gather as much information as possible. Most young people returning to farms today have some level of formal education, from ag management diplomas to agronomy degrees, and some even have masters degrees in business.
My experience has been like many young farmers: I acquired a degree specializing in Agronomy with a minor in AgBusiness, and I worked off the farm for many years to gather more experience and industry knowledge. Every year, I spend a great deal of my time reading, from magazines and newspapers like Grainews and The Western Producer to research papers from places like the Indian Head Research Farm and the University of Saskatchewan.
Interestingly, some of the best learning experiences I ever received are due to chemical companies. In the fall of 2013, Bayer CropScience hosted an “Agronomy Summit” at Banff that was a haven of agronomic knowledge, and certainly one of the most valuable conferences I have ever attended. Later that winter, Syngenta hosted Grower University I at the Richard Ivey School of Business. It was like a master’s degree in business in four days, and the follow-up this past winter in Minnetonka, Minnesota (Grower UII) was fantastic as well. Farmers rarely get the chance to learn the business skills they need in any kind of a formal manner, so kudos to Syngenta for providing this program.
In businesses like agriculture, where everything changes so fast, you can never learn too much. Smartphones and the Internet really changed how farmers go about their day-to-day lives. Twitter is a fantastic place to gather information on insect outbreaks, marketing trends, and thousands of different business ideas from thousands of different farmers.
As agriculture moves into the digital age, we have so much more to learn about, from drones to robotics to mass data collection. It is hard to foresee what the future holds ten or twenty years from now. Some futurists claim we will have artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, both of which, despite their inherent dangers, could be a revolution in agriculture.
Whatever the future may hold, it looks amazingly bright and exciting; we farmers will have to continuously learn as we go forward to try and keep up. It will be a great ride.