N.C. Farmers Take Advantage of New Agriculture Technology

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To get the most out of their equipment for higher yields and efficiency, farmers used to have to depend on their tractors running only a power take-off or hydraulics. Now tractors can drive themselves, and farmers can make a wide array of changes and functions with just the push of a button.

“It’s just like all of life but especially in agriculture, the technology has come a long way. It’s made us more productive, and that’s a good thing,” says Cabarrus County Farm Bureau President Tommy Porter, who also was named the 2011 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

As winner, Porter received a 100-horsepower Massey Ferguson tractor equipped with the latest GPS technology and more. The tractor complements his stable of John Deere machines that have varying levels of technology.

“It’s much easier to operate. It’s much more comfortable. I wouldn’t want to go back to the way things were,” Porter says. “When something goes wrong, the first thing the mechanic from the dealer does is get out of his truck with a laptop computer. They’ve got to plug that computer into it to tell you what’s wrong.”

While more bushels per acre are what any farmer might want, Porter mentions the technology also lessens some of the physical strain of production agriculture. Some tractor cabs contain air conditioning, an air-cushioned seat and even a place to dock an iPod.

“Now if you sit up there for 10 or 12 hours, you’re still worn out, but you’re not beat to death like you used to be, and with the cab you’re not breathing in all that dust and pollen. It’s much more person friendly, too, once you learn what all those buttons do,” says Porter, who keeps user manuals with the tractor at all times.

Technology advances, such as tractors that have GPS and more, are all a part of what North Carolina Cooperative Extension crop science specialist Ron Heiniger calls precision agriculture.

“The main principle is to try to place the right amount of seed or fertilizer or herbicide at the precise place in the field,” Heiniger says. “Today, you’re trying to do everything more efficiently, use less materials and get a bigger yields.”

Heiniger says his work couldn’t be possible without the technology Porter and scores of other Farm Bureau members use every day.

“Without the technology there’s just no way to approach that goal of putting the right amount in the right place,” says Heiniger, who is stationed at the Vernon James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth in Washington County, where a single field can easily encompass hundreds of acres.

“These fields are so immense and the need to change rates are so precise and coordinated that without the GPS and geographical information systems and the controllers that operate down to the microsecond, we just couldn’t even hope to attempt to do what we’re trying to do here,” he adds.

Heiniger admits the North Carolina farmers must weigh the technology costs against how much return they can get from the field and the market.

“That’s always the issue when you have technology or equipment on the farm, you’ve got to balance what you can return against the investment you’re making in that technology,” Heiniger says he tells farmers. “That really becomes the biggest question for most growers when they’re looking at something; it has to pay for itself. That’s a difficult question to answer.”

Just like how consumer electronics keep evolving, Heiniger sees the technology North Carolina farmers can employ will keep improving, too.

“I used to say that we’ll know when precision agriculture is a viable option when it becomes commonplace. Well, today it’s really happened,” Heiniger says. “It’s not like we’ve reached the pinnacle. We’re still climbing.”

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