One of my roles on the Farm Progress team is being asked to moderate panels at events. It’s a fun job and connects me with a wide range of speakers. And in the past few months I’ve been looking at the idea of sustainability and technology. The key conclusion I draw from this work, and my own reportage on technology for Western Farmer-Stockman, is that we’re at the beginning of some pretty big opportunities.
When I say sustainable, I’m using a definition that relies on science-based environmental approaches, as well as the financial focus of keeping the farm in business. It’s a marriage of agronomy and business that, when combined with all that new data you’re collecting, opens new doors of opportunity for many businesses.
But it also means getting your own head around the idea of how that data you collect from tractor, sprayer and combine can really help. And frankly, machine-only collected information is just the start. You need to roll that information into a central information system that also brings in weather information, soil data and even aerial imagery to better evaluate your farm activities.
For several years, the Field to Market Fieldprint program has been out there allowing you to sign up, share some information into that system (your information is private) to calculate your sustainability footprint. Big consumer companies are starting to look at that as they source crops for their products, but it’s been a gradual change.
Yet when you put information into that system, you can get a spider graph of how you’re doing. You can also “what-if” the system to see if cover crops, reduced tillage, improved water management or other tactics impact your farm’s footprint. Yes, some of that sounds like common sense. But not every farm gets the same economic lift from reduced tillage or cover crops that a neighboring operation might.
The economics of farming
This business is complicated. As the old joke goes, if farming were easy, everyone would do it. You’re balancing a big pile of known factors that can essentially be wiped out by a single unknown — like weather.
Those choices you make to maximize 8-inches of rain in eastern Washington are different from the choice an Oregon producer might make on the west side of the Cascade range.
Yet with these systems, you’ve really got more, and better, information than you’ve ever had for in-season crop management. For those that irrigate, a soil probe here and there around an operation can maximize water use, cut your cost for water and still maintain or boost yield.
And that last phrase, “maintain or boost,” is worth pondering. These new systems may get us asking a new question about profit and yield. If you cut water costs by $100 per acre and see yield stay at last year’s level, that’s money straight to the bottom line. I realize that that farmers want to produce more, but these days more money may be better than more bushels. Yes, having both more money and more bushels is fun, too. But this data allows you to ask questions in new ways.
Sustainability can also mean trying new ways to farm, or not farm, the land you run. It’s an interesting time that requires what some call “flexible” thinking. So open your mind to new ideas and see where that takes your operation.