More than a decade ago, I was riding through a California vegetable field on a tractor while the driver sat nonchalantly with his hands folded in his lap as the GPS-guided tractor unerringly moved in a straight line down the rows.
It was another in the long list of “gee whiz” moments that have occurred as advances in technology in other arenas have been adapted to agriculture.
That pioneer generation auto-steer equipment was expensive, complex, and required quite a bit of babying. I remember thinking: Yeah, that’s neat, and it might have a place in high dollar California agriculture, but how applicable will it ever be to the average farmer in the rest of the country?
Farmers, after all, were slow to embrace computers — how many of them had laughingly told me they’d bought early generation computers, but couldn’t find software specific to their needs, didn’t have time to spend learning arcane commands, and ended up using them as doorstops?
Now, most farmers have powerful computer systems with a myriad of ag-specific programs to choose from, incredibly versatile smart phones and tablet devices with apps that can monitor and control farm equipment and operations from anywhere there is Internet access, and hardly a new tractor, sprayer, or other large piece of equipment is delivered without GPS or the even more sophisticated RTK. Precision ag companies are constantly coming up with newer, better, faster, more accurate ways to do things.
Guidance systems now allow farmers to perform field operations with sub-inch accuracy, even at night, maintaining rows and beds in exactly the same place year after year; yield monitors give them a real-time picture of variations in the field; variable rate equipment can provide prescription application of fertilizer and chemicals with no overlaps and minimal waste; data logging programs allow it all to be recorded for analysis; and field operations can be done with less fatigue and strain for the operator who no longer has to concentrate, hour after hour, on trying to maintain a straight path. It’s not that unusual for a farmer to be going across the field in his auto-steer tractor while checking markets or looking up insect/weed/other information on a laptop, tablet, or smart phone.
This technology has become so commonplace that the “gee whiz” factor is long gone. It’s now taken for granted as part of agriculture’s evolution toward greater efficiency and productiveness.
It will come as no surprise, then, that equipment companies are already busily working on machines that require no operators at all. Basically robots that can be programmed to specific field parameters, they will till, plant, spray, fertilize, harvest, and dump crops with little human assistance.
We’ve come a long way from the era when guidance consisted of “gee” and “haw” to a team of mules. As a long-ago comic book character predicted: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”