Letter from Langdon: High-Tech Ag Still Comes Down to Putting Bulls and Heifers Together
The latest gadgets and goodies help farmers produce more crops with less effort, so they can purchase more gadgets and goodies that enrich corporations. For all its wonder, technology still can’t help farmers produce their way out of a surplus.
Farmers continually receive slick marketing about the latest technological advances in agriculture. Patented plant genetics, GPS-tracking computerized equipment controlled by proprietary software, and new pesticides (or old pesticides with new applications). Even many of the basic inputs used to produce crops get a sales pitch. For example, nitrogen, which is made from plentiful natural gas, is controlled by a few large companies. So while nitrogen is ordinary, its pricing makes it seem matchless.
Every year there’s another new thing we call “snake oil.” Crop applications promoted as mysterious, miraculous, and revolutionary, almost certain to increase yields so that spending one dollar generates two in return. In these high tech times, though, spending $10 on snake oil supposedly begets only $12.
As I told the salesman of such a product, saving $10 is almost as good as the possibility of gaining $12.
Welcome to high-tech agriculture. When I hear about the government lifting burdensome regulations to set our economy free, the little voice in my head asks, “What about me?'”
Of all major farm good produced in America today, only dairy seems to be enjoying a price rebound. Exports are up, they say, but I haven’t seen any dairymen smoking Havana cigars and riding in big limos … yet. For most of the other commodities — like feed-grain corn, food-grain wheat, oilseed sunflowers and soybeans, beef, and the rest — surplus production, competition, and doubts about trade deals like NAFTA, TPP, and TTIP cast a shadow over breadbasket Midwestern farms.
In a place like this, there’s only one way we farmers got where we are. We did it by adopting and adapting the very latest in production and marketing practices so that we could produce the most for less, selling it for as much as we could get. Being baby boomer farmers meant doing mostly the same things our fathers did over more acres, faster, and growing more and more at market-clearing prices for surplus ridden markets.
A few things have changed since Dad retired.
Now we do things like no-till to preserve carbon in the soil; crops benefit from organic matter that decays over time to release captive nutrients. Carbon-y plant residue on top stays out of the atmosphere, discouraging weed growth and soil loss. Countering our fathers’ approach of clean tillage that lays the soil bare, we adopted new herbicides, more herbicides, patented herbicides, and plants designed to resist them. And to do everything faster than our fathers, we put new computer-controlled machines in the field. Machines that are linked to global position satellites and radio transmitters, with higher horsepower engines and modern transmissions capable of shifting on the go to maximize speed and productivity.
In some cases, farmers even helped pioneer their development.
Productivity rules America, but you cannot produce yourself out of a surplus. American farmers do this so well that in fact once again we have worked our way to markets priced below their break-even cost of production.
In the meantime, deforestation of relatively small plots over huge areas in South America are offering more competition when U.S. production is not competitive. That’s partly due to government’s attitude toward corporate profit at the expense of U.S. farmers.
It’s a recurring problem for American farmers who, after accepting technology in its many forms, are held to an impossibly high standard of patent and licensing restrictions for everything from seeds to software in our farm machines.
Here’s an example: Most modern diesel-powered farm equipment is required to meet emission standards. As part of that process, manufacturers have created computer programming to monitor and control the performance of those engines as well as almost every other function of the entire machine.
Old-timey tractors had levers and linkages, a complex array of pins, cables, rods, and clevises all operated by a push or a pull of the operator’s arms or legs. When a cotter key or snap ring failed, the farmer could fix it, albeit with a skinned knuckle or two. Dad and all his neighbors could richen or lean fuel and air mixtures at the carburetor with nothing more than a screwdriver. Now computer software is present in every facet of modern farm tractors and self-propelled harvesters. When something goes wrong? Forget about screwdrivers. Not all of us know how to retune an engine controlled by ones and zeros. Actually, farmers are prohibited by law from opening up that box of worms. Only certified technicians working for dealers of that machine company are licensed for that.
And if farmers who plant genetically modified seed refuse to sign the technology agreement required by seed companies owning seed patents–or licensing them–then farmers are denied access to roughly 90% of all commercially available seed for crops like soybeans, canola, corn, and cotton. Those patents last 20 years, and as is the case of Roundup Ready plants. Weeds can become resistant way before the patent expires. And, as in the case of Roundup Ready II, a year or so before the first patent expires, a new patent seals the deal for another 20 years.
The law is clear. Even though they paid for the machine and own it free and clear, or bought the seeds, farmers are liable for prosecution and punishment if they don’t follow the rules. This sounds eerily familiar to reasons farmers and the Trump administration want to ditch environmental rules and shut down EPA for the possibility that they might sue farmers — for not following rules.
So when I hear the word “deregulation,” my mind instantly turns to how it’s hard to figure the true cost of the things I buy because none of their sellers are compelled to flesh out the fine print. I bought a tractor that has no use beyond being a very large paperweight if the manufacturer takes back the software license. I bought seeds, but they aren’t mine. And in both cases, machines or living things, the sellers never have to itemize the costs. I pay one lump sum for products and the use of their self-contained proprietary secrets.
Farmers are constantly pushed to lower per-unit costs. The unimaginative route to low cost is always touted to be higher yields. But weather and other unknowns (like when a wheel will fall off my tractor’s computer, or if the hybrid or variety of patented seed I buy will perform as well as they say) constantly challenge corporate wisdom that somehow more is less.
That’s because the only “less” that helps raise prices is short supply.
I am an American farmer. We are increasingly expected to accept the corporate status quo of being progressive in my production practices while accepting smaller market share of food value. We bear the burden of production cost without benefit of patent annuities. It is upon us that everything is built because no one else can exist without us and the food we grow,
We are bedrock to the nation.
Its true: Technology has made us both fewer and more productive. After long hours in the field, Dad’s shoulders would ache from manhandling a steering wheel to complete another 40 acres. Today I barely touch the steering wheel during my 160-acre day. But sometimes I think technology leans too hard on the thumb and index finger of my right hand to control the few things software does not.
Sometimes they get a little sore.
And I long for the day when seeds were cheaper and there were 600 seed companies in competition with each other instead of the three or four now, cross-licensing patented traits while smoking Havana cigars and riding in big limos…
Technology is amazing, but occasionally we all have to admit that farming is still just placing bulls and heifers together, planting seeds in fertile warm soil, watching skies for rain or sun, and bringing in His bounty.
While hoping for the best.