As the 41st annual Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition wound down, Chip Blalock, executive director, sat behind his desk in the Sunbelt office in Moultrie, Ga., and reminisced.
It was an eventful week for the “North America's Premier Farm Show,” which just a week earlier was in jeopardy of shutting down as Hurricane Michael churned through the Gulf of Mexico to eventually devastate a large swath of southwest Georgia's agriculture. Damage was minimal at the show site, and Blalock said, “The show must go on.”
He contended that holding the Expo could serve as “a healing presence” for many who suffered catastrophic damage from the storm.
Adding to the stress was last-minute preparations for a Tuesday awards luncheon visit from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. The back and forth with the Secret Service, the White House and local officials to assure a safe venue for Pence to speak to the more than 1,000 attendees at the annual luncheon was more than a bit stressful—but worth it, Blalock said. “That just happened,” he said as the vice president and his entourage left the building.
So, it was with a bit of relief that he took a few minutes to appreciate the 41st show and to think back on the agricultural advances that have been tested and demonstrated at Sunbelt.
Blalock is in his 22nd year as executive director of the outdoor farm exhibition that showcases field research and demonstrations. “I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he says. The most recent, and perhaps one with the most near-term applications to farm efficiency, is the See & Spray weed management system from John Deere’s Blue River Technology. Simply put, the spray rig includes computer vision and artificial intelligence to differentiate weeds from crop and sprays the weeds with the appropriate herbicide.
Blalock says the system will reduce herbicide use by as much as 90 percent. “This is the future of weed control.”
He says farmers will adapt the technology, based on specific weed populations and pressure in a region. The weed population in the Midwest, for instance, will be different than in south Georgia. “Here, we have pigweed.”
He adds that the combination of See & Spray with “what we’re doing with cover crops will change weed control strategy. We are interested to see how See & Spray works with a cover crop.”
Demonstrating the spray system to farmer audiences at farm expositions is an important step, Blalock says.
“Some people said we were crazy to plant cotton and soybeans in September,” he says. But to show how the See & Spray system works, they had to have plants at the proper height to demonstrate early-season weed control.
The Expo trials also help assure manufacturers that the product is field-worthy before it reaches the farm.
Blalock says Sunbelt has been a proving ground for much of the technology now the norm for farms across the nation.
“We demonstrated computers back in 1987,” Blalock says. “Those were not the norm until the mid-90s. We demonstrated new seed trait technology in the mid-90s that are now the norm.”
He says the improvement in cottonseed varieties, including resistance traits, plays a significant role in today’s higher yields. He adds that in the late 90s the prospect of consistent three and four-bale cotton yields was laughed at. “Now, that’s the norm,” he says. Much of that improvement came from improved varieties and better production practices.
He says improved peanut varieties with tolerance to diseases and insects pushed yield and improved farmer efficiency. Seed technology has been a huge advantage, he says. “We will eventually breed a peanut with no allergen.”
New Chemistry Needed
Blalock says a pressing need is for new chemistry. “It has been a long time since we have had new products,” he says. “But farmers are persistent and resilient and will adapt to change.” He says the See & Spray technology and cover crops are examples of new options for weed control.
“What we do here is important across the country,” he says. University researchers across crops and disciplines conduct trials in the Expo field plots," he said. “Everything we do is geared to identify the best seed variety, the best fertility level, the best herbicide or insecticide, or the best irrigation management. Trials are crop specific.”
He says improvements in irrigation tops his list of biggest advances in technology. “Improvements in irrigation management has had more effect on making farms more efficient than anything,” he says.
Moisture sensors and improved delivery systems save water and allow producers to apply it more accurately. “And we now have the ability to turn irrigation systems on or off from a smart phone. If the system is running and it starts to rain, an alarm goes off and the producer can shut down the system.”
Blalock says water conservation demands attention in farm management, even in an area with typically adequate rainfall and a good aquifer. “We have to understand that water is not an unlimited resource.”
He says cover crop adoption also offers water savings. Cover crops limit runoff, so rainfall infiltrates and stays in the field. “We also build organic matter,” he adds. “We may need to plow once every few years to bury pigweed seed and break hardpans, but spraying the cover crop, rolling it down or planting into it is something we need to look at.
“We’ve also found that a cover crop prevents light penetration, and pigweed can’t germinate without sunlight," he said.
Blalock says the round bale cotton picker also improves efficiency, reducing the number of machines necessary to harvest cotton, saving time, labor and capital expenses.
Internet Changed Everything
He says the biggest technological advancement for agriculture, “and life in general is the internet. People once said the internet would kill farm shows,” he says. “It didn’t.”
He explains that potential customers can go online, learn about new products and come to farm expos armed with the questions they need answered.
Blalock says predicting the next big technological innovation is difficult. “I know we will take all these technologies together and improve efficiency,” he says. “We have to because we face the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. And we must produce the most abundant, the safest and the most affordable food supply on the planet and do it in a sustainable manner.
“We have to get a handle on input costs,” he adds. “Production is not getting cheaper. And we have to work on marketing.”
Blalock says, despite the challenges, including the once-in-a-generation storm that damaged so much of southwest Georgia agriculture, farmers will endure.
“We will lose some farmers following Hurricane Michael,” he says. “But I told the Weather Channel in an interview (after the storm) that no one can do better than our farmers in getting the most out of a seed.”