Agricultural Economics Always Win Our Technological Tussles

It was a mild January in SW Ontario but starting tonight we’re supposed to get heavy snow moving in dropping an inch per hour. For those of you in more northern climates, I’m sure you might laugh at that. However, in the deep SW of Ontario, we don’t get a lot of snow. Needless to say, with the help of modern technology most of us know when the snow will start falling and now much. We actually have to step outside to verify everything.

I say most of us, because your loyal scribe still doesn’t own a smartphone. I’ll leave that story for another day. Needless to say, in the field on our devices we can watch the weather and make better decisions when the time comes. Spring for me cannot come soon enough. Covid 19 continues to weigh us all down.

As I look out ahead amid the snowflakes to spring, I can only anticipate the changes I’ll be seeing. Our markets continue to boil with good prices, which means farmers will be spending and investing in new equipment and technology to make them ever more efficient. The trick of course is acquiring tangible technology which has big paybacks. At my age and stage in life, that can be a challenge.

In my grain marketing presentations, I did pre Covid, I’d often show a picture of what my farm was like when I was in high school. In the picture, you’d see an old wooden shed with an International Farmall 230 beside it. At the time, I did 1200 acres of soybean cultivating every spring with that tractor. The tractor was built between 1956-58 and had 25 hp, with no power steering. I’d work all day, taking in all the elements the environment could throw at me. However, compared to today, I get into a 125 hp tractor with air conditioning and guidance. When I used to mount that International 230, I couldn’t have even dreamed of that.

There are so many variations on the theme today, as technological breakthroughs continue. One thing we hear a lot about today is electric vehicles. In fact, you could almost argue that they are becoming common in some Canadian cities. There is something particularly spooky about walking a Canadian street only to be passed by a vehicle that makes no sound. Can you imagine the same type of thing on the farm? Surely, we can imagine an EV pickup. Then there are all the other facets of electrification on the farm. Wouldn’t it be nice to have affordable electric power switches on every facet of farm equipment operations?

Some of you might already have new electric drives in your planters. I’m still blowing off the dust on my Kinze 6000. Needless to say, I was intrigued this past week to read about a new eIVT (electro-mechanical infinitely variable transmission) technology from John Deere. Now, I’m sure other companies are looking at the same thing. According to Deere, electrification will be critical to help provide efficient and stable power to its implements, as well as providing a better way for precision components to work on their machines. The iEVT is made up of brushless electric motors and drives with solid state electronics. Needless to say, it’s a long ways from the gears below me on my old International 230 tractor.

I find this fascinating, partly because I farm for a living, but also, I used to review farm equipment for a popular Canadian farm magazine. This transmission is available on some tractors now, increasingly making the tractor a humming computer guided down the field. How will it all pan out, especially in 50 years down the road is anybody’s guess. That old International 230 tractor will still drive an auger on today’s farms. I’m hoping the solid-state electrical components on today’s newest equipment will work too. Wiring harnesses will have to stand the test of times and rodents.

Of course, on top of that, you have to add the spectre of “autonomy” into the future. I’ll let you muse about that one, but its increasingly obvious, the technology for autonomous equipment is already here. Our farming economy, we’ll just have to decide how that will look.

I’ve always identified “liability” as the Kryptonite of autonomous equipment on farm. Phil was a great guy, until he got run over by an autonomous tractor. Who do you litigate against? Needless to say, there will likely be hiccups along the way. Case in point lets go back to that picture of my old International 230. At the time I was cultivating soybeans in an attempt to reduce the weed populations. At about the same time, a new herbicide was emerging called glyphosate which had the promise of a better day.

Of course, we all know what magic that was. Weeds that ruined my summers with a hoe handle, suddenly couldn’t with stand glyphosate and the world was changed. Fast forward to last week I read an article form DTN’s Todd Neeley about Bayer’s $2 Billion Roundup Settlement to resolve future Roundup cancer class action lawsuits. Hmmm, what a downer. I guess change might be our only constant on the farm, but sometimes everything doesn’t exactly go the way you expect.

We know that agricultural economics always wins these technological tussles. As I’ve said before, embracing new technology on the farm usually is the way ahead. That vintage International 230 can only drive the auger now. However, ensuring these new farm technologies are tangible and sustainable while at the same time having a distinct economic payback time is the difficult thing to judge.

So where does that put farmers like me? Despite our high prices, investments in new technologies remain a leap of faith. There is so much to consider. Adding a farm safety aspect to the decision process might help. Who knows, maybe in 2037 you’ll be able to plant corn at 20 mph instead of 10 mph, or like me at 5 mph. You might even be able to make it rain. Chew on that for a while.