When a Duck Isn’t a Duck: What’s Real On Our Farms

Duck Isn't a DuckOne of my great challenges as a farmer and agricultural economist is determining what is real and what isn’t.  I cannot say I do a good job of that all the time but it is a question I constantly ask myself.  When I am considering the markets or considering some type of new technology or just considering life itself, I often question the reliability and validity of what I see in front of me.  Just because something quacks like a duck, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a duck next week.

When it comes to agricultural technology I find those questions increasingly salient.  For instance, I review new farm equipment for Country Guide magazine in Canada.  So twice a month I am usually ensconced reading about a new piece of machinery or a new technology that is boosting capacity and efficiency in farm country.  Sometimes the new technology is something bigger and sometimes it is more about adding computer technology to monitor mundane tasks.  At the end of the day, I’m always left trying to figure out what is real and what is truly a benefit in increasing our efficiency as farmers.

Case in point is some of the guidance systems that we use on our farms.  I have a very basic light bar which I use when I am spraying my fields.  So I can pull into a field and commence spraying in perfect parallel swaths and measuring the acreage at the same time.  I minimize skips and overlaps, boosting environmental efficiency as well as overall sprayer performance.  I think it is great technology that works.  If you have not invested in one, I wouldn’t think twice about it.

However, a funny thing happened on the first day of spraying this past spring.  As I headed down the field in perfect symmetry with my previous path, everything went askew.  My satellite receiver was telling me that there were no satellites.  I immediately thought of horror, as what was I going to do now?  I stopped the tractor and after a few seconds the satellites were found.  This happened several times throughout the day and has not happened since.  So that is a very good thing, but if it had continued, I would be back to “eyeballing” my way across the field.

In fact, agricultural GPS has been threatened this year by a wireless company whose signal in the United States and Canada may interfere with our signals.  When this happened to me, I thought it may be a case.  Needless to say, it has never happened again.  I don’t know how it works, but it usually does.  So that makes it real for me.

There are a myriad of technologies out there in farm country, which are on the fence with regard to being real.  For instance I think the machinery, fertilizer, chemical and water related technologies, which make tangible positive economic differences on our farms are the ones to really watch.  Unfortunately, I think much of the thrust of new products put in front of farmers are software, computer, communications related which don’t necessarily transfer into big economic gains for agriculture.  Sometimes, I believe as farmers we put too much effort into understanding things which go nowhere, when tangible results can be garnered much more easily from looking at big picture solutions garnered from our day-to-day challenges.

I also believe this axiom is true in our grain marketing world.  I have great respect for the technical analysts in the grain industry and all the speculators and hedgers.  I consistently read and decipher several grain reports around the world each week.  I’m a solid supporter of DTN and the six factors.  However, I think as a marketer, especially in the 2011 grain world, tangible profitable goals using flat price levels makes great sense.  It’s simple, understandable and very relevant in our present day volatile grain market where the old rules of futures and basis have lost their relevance.

At the end of the day, it’s all about profit and yield.  Sure, you might also say it’s about our safety, environmental sustainability and a whole host of other factors which come into play.   We are not profit and yield zombies.  There are many of us in farm country who like that air cushioned seat when the old steal seat on top of a big coiled spring used to work.  I can remember bouncing up and down on that tractor seat, “back in the day.”

So what is real on our farms?  What types of criteria should we use to test validity and reliability on what is presented to us?  Ditto for the grain markets.   Sometimes what we can see and feel is 10 times better than what might be.  The great challenge is considering that measurement.