Monday, April 21, 2014

Letter from Langdon: A Harvest of High-Tech

12/05/2013

Photo via CSIRO Farmers have a history of using the latest technology to help them build capacity and grow smarter.

Here around Langdon, being a "modern" farmer has meant different things to different farmers.

Being modern for Grandad meant more steel in his plow. When Dad was a modern farmer, he adopted wheeled farm tractors as replacements for sorrel mules.  I can't remember seeing his mules, but I remember when he added power steering to his "M" Farmall. 

Shoulders and back made strong (and sore) by scooping corn, pitching hay and hauling hard on the reins got a reprieve. That's when Dad called the family outside so we could see him turn the steering wheel with one finger.

I became “modern” with my own tractor when I got an air-conditioned, sound-insulated cab with a stereo. Then, decades later, satellite radio, Bluetooth, four-wheel-drive, and global position satellite guidance.

Dad turned his steering wheel with one finger.  I don't even touch mine.

Something that hasn't changed is long days in the field. In the old days we were out of sight and out of mind, because neither Dad nor I had any idea what was happening with the family at home.

Things have changed again – this time with communications.

First bag phones. Then flip phones opened up. They were perfect for keeping one hand on the steering wheel and both eyes on the row. One simple motion could answer a call or end it. A lot of farmers still have them.

 

Photo via Sheila Scarborough Flip phones may be old technology, but they started a small revolution in farming by allowing a farmer to open the phone with one hand and while driving the tractor with the other.

Today farmers who want more can have smart phones and tablets. We use them in ways Dad never dreamed possible. Closest thing he had to up-to-date information was an old AM radio he stripped from a junk car and mounted behind the tractor steering wheel. He had to put a bucket over it if it rained, and, turned up loud as it would go, it was still barely audible above the sound of the engine.

Only half joking, he used to say the neighbors could hear that radio better than he could.

Farmers’ best weather tool then was a plain old barometer. We only mowed hay if the barometer was rising. If it was falling we put hay away in a hurry. Even with low barometric pressure warnings, weather never failed to offer surprises.

Clouds on the horizon inevitably lead to the question, “Is it supposed to rain?”

Then I got DTN. Back then, DTN stood for Data Transmission Network, and it came to my farm wirelessly via an FM signal. For the first time ever I could look at up-to-date forecasts and weather radar any time of the day or night. I could check grain and livestock markets too. And there was farm news. Everything on those early DTN screens was an amber, mono color with intensity of storm clouds portrayed as numbers on an outline map – 1 was sprinkles, 5 meant head for the hills.

Crude by today's standards, but it was miraculous back then.

Next, DTN adopted satellite technology requiring a small dish and a receiver.  Before long in a few up-to-date places, farmers could receive service on the Internet. That's when weather came to life with vivid color-radar pictures, and those infamous clouds on the horizon were revealed for what they were. But even that required a quick trip home to check DTN radar.  All the information I needed, the things I had to know to operate my farm as well as possible were anchored to my office desk by electrical cables and bulky equipment.

 

Photo via David Ciani A cell phone tower disguised as a water tower near Santa Cruz, California.

Early cell phones helped, because we could phone home to ask the other end for a radar report. Just like everything else in farming, cell phones and the ways we use them have changed.

Living in rural America has its drawbacks. Theater, concerts, even new work boots and clothing are miles away. Heavily traveled highways leading to the good life offer amenities like big-city conveniences not just for rural people but all of America.

We're a mobile society.

That's why, along the way, a lot of rural areas have picked up Internet access from a very unexpected source. City people traveling to and from expect to stay connected. That means expanded access to cell phone coverage.

Welcome to the world of 4G

Road tripping city folks demand it.

For years I lived in a data-desert. Leaving home meant leaving behind market reports, news, even the latest update on DailyYonder.com.

Then I got a smart phone.

These days email isn't just something that happens late evening or early mornings at home on my computer. I can talk to friends or business contacts from my tractor cab, the grain truck or my favorite recliner. I can check grain and livestock markets or the stock market anytime. Or look at weather radar via DTN Mobile.

And Facebook.

Sometimes it isn't easy as it looks because access to air waves can get complicated.  Local governments want to regulate new construction of things that clutter the horizon--like cell towers. In Missouri, both Governor Jay Nixon and key members of the Missouri General Assembly are trying to find a solution so construction and better service can keep coming.

The newest technology, 4G LTE, is helping to change the way all of us use the Internet. It might just be having the greatest impact on rural areas where hard-wired access still lags. These days I boot up a computer no more than once or twice a week. I use my home-based broadband as much for entertainment and services like Netflix or Apple TV as I do for work. Rain or shine, work or play, most of the time my phone does everything I need, thanks to expanded coverage from my provider, AT&T, or broadband provided by our rural telephone co-op.

More and better service is coming to parts of Missouri via fiber optics. Cable TV and Internet access is the main reason for this expansion, but for rural businesses to develop and grow, these connections are almost a must. But still, these miraculous little computers we call phones are way more powerful than my first 186 PC.

In 1984, my first PC cost almost $2,000. That one didn't even come with a modem to hook it up to a telephone line, let alone have Internet capability. Today's smart phones are priced anywhere from free (with a service contract) up to a few hundred dollars. They're as far apart as Granddad's plow and my satellite connected tractor.

That's what I call modern.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.