At A Million Miles Per Hour, Change Is Coming Straight At Us

Farm 510
“Change is our only constant in agriculture.”  This past week, I travelled to Ottawa to speak on Market Trends and Farmland Values.  That line is usually part of my presentation.  If there is one thing I can depend on during my career is that nothing is so good, it can’t be made better.  In the world of farming that means constant change.  The drive for great efficiency seemingly never ends.

Interesting stuff for sure.  I’m into my 28th year writing Under the Agridome.  Every week, for the last 28 years, I’ve sat down on a Thursday night and tried my best to give good agricultural economic editorial.  When I first started, I was in my twenties writing by long hand.  I had to drive my column down to my editor.  Sometime in 1986 I wrote my 1st piece on an IBM computer.  That changed the next year when I bought a Mac.  Shortly after that, I added a fax modem to my Mac and I pressed a button and my column went to my editor through the phone lines.

Time moved on and the Internet became indispensable to us all.  It gave me a plethora of resources that I never had before.  E-mail became the great way to communicate.  Now, 28 years later we have all of this plus voice recognition software and social media to do things better and quicker.  In this case, I’m talking about writing, but of course on the farm it’s been the same sprint into the future.  Change is the only constant and as I look into 2014, it’ll be more of the same.

Case in point is one slide that I use in my presentations across Canada.  A few months ago somebody posted on twitter, their tractor cab at night with auto steer running along with Netflix on their iPad.  Compared to 28 years ago, that’s like Star Wars.  It might have to do with comfort and entertainment, but it’s still a long ways from the way we used to do it.

Of course the question is what happens next?   It’s hard for me to even imagine but I know that I must embrace change and embrace some of the technology that comes along with it.  Do you have to separate the wheat from the chaff?  There is certainly no question about that.   Hopefully much of the change that we will see going forward will be in agricultural productivity gains.  In many ways that is the only way that farmers can continue to be successful as we look into the future.

If we get there with auto steer and Netflix in the cab, so be it.  I can remember planting oats back in the early 1980s on an open platform tractor and basically freezing to death all day.  I remember getting into a car for lunch and my hands wouldn’t move for a few minutes while they thawed out.  So if you can give me more comfort, I’ll take it.  There are surely some productivity gains from reducing operator fatigue and enhancing our comfort.

In Ontario over the last 20 years soybeans have increased their yield at .32 bushels per acre per year.  At the same time corn has increased 2.3 bushels per acre per year over the same period.  In fact, over the last 5 years it’s being close to 5 bushels per acre.  That’s why corn productivity is so intoxicating to so many farmers.  From a standing still start, farmers are ahead of the game with corn versus soybeans just because of its productivity gains.  In the next 2 years soybeans must find a way to close that gap, to say nothing about the world screaming out for less feed grains.

The question is as we move ahead will all this change make us work harder or will it simply make the work easier?  Will the efficiencies that we gain only send us on a journey toward more debt and much bigger farm size?  Is there a middle ground where everybody can be happy?  Of course, what will be that game changing technology to come along to compare with the first electricity on the farm or the changeover to tractors from horsepower?  That’s one, which I really dream about.

The problem though is my imagination is captive to what I’ve seen.  Some type of game changing technology may come along that I cannot even envision.  For instance, I’ve always thought that would be the elimination of fossil fuels.  So far in my life I’m still filling up tractors, trucks and combines with fuel.  So I will have to wait a little bit longer.

I like to think I will kill my weeds by flying my UAV drone across my field taking out weeds with a laser beam 24 hours a day.  I don’t know.  I do know that that technology is just around the corner, with UAV drones now being part of our agricultural lexicon.  I might direct them using Google Glass, that computer technology you wear like Sunglasses.  So as we look ahead into 2014, we know it’s going to be different.  At a million miles an hour, change is coming straight at us.