Farm Progress

ROI spells success when it comes to ag innovations

Farmer Iron: Be it gas-powered tractors or drones, game-changing technologies take decades of refinement before farmers embrace them.

Andy Castillo

April 20, 2024

3 Min Read
The Minneapolis Steam tractor
STEAM-POWERED: An old Minneapolis steam tractor is on display in Berryville, Va. The modern tractor took nearly half a century to make its way from the inventor’s workshop to American farmland. Acroterion

The 21st century farmer is inundated with the latest gadgets, each of which promises to streamline their operation and increase productivity. Some have potential. Some will most definitely fail. And even the greatest innovations rarely take a direct path from inventor’s workshop to farm field.

Not every glittering machine is gold — at least not right away.

Having closely observed precision agriculture on U.S. farms since the 1990s, Bruce Erickson, a clinical professor of digital agriculture at Purdue University, says technology must be refined through on-the-ground field testing before it can be proven useful. That process can take a few decades — or centuries.

“There’s a history of these new things coming out. We see it in the future, and it’s shiny. We run toward it, but when we get there, it’s not what we thought it would be,” Erickson says. “When you get there, you see another shiny thing and want to run toward that.”

Erickson points to the first steam-powered tractor, invented in the 1800s. In 1892, U.S. entrepreneur John Froelich revolutionized the tractor by giving it a gas-powered engine. He died before his invention was fully embraced, as it took 40 years of refinement before his machine became a farming mainstay.

By the 1950s, the gas-powered tractor had forever changed agriculture.

“Why did it take about half a century for tractors to be used?” Erickson asks. “The first tractors were just huge monsters. They were hard to steer and didn’t work very well on small farms. You couldn’t take them down the road.”

Engineers went to work, and the rest is history.

Drone revolution

Today’s digital tech might be smaller and comparatively more complex than Froelich’s first machine, but the adoption curve could be similar. Consider drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles were invented to meet a wartime mission during World War I. British engineers tested a small unmanned radio-controlled aircraft around 1917. American developers flew an aerial torpedo about a year later. They were deployed as spy assets for the first time during the Vietnam War.

A century later, UAVs are making their way from battlefields to farms. Jonathan McFadden, a research economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service, says drones applying ag inputs were greeted with excitement when they first emerged on the market. Then reality set in.

“There’s been much discussion about the potential for drones. But adoption remains low,” McFadden says. They’re currently used on less than 10% of American farmland, based on ERS data.

The Federal Aviation Authority’s recent “drone swarm” exemption might accelerate adoption. The ruling allows one pilot to fly up to three large drones, greatly expanding their capability for spraying applications.

It’s impossible to predict what the next revolutionary piece of machinery will be. There’s also been a lot of discussion about the impact artificial intelligence could have on farming. Many businesses are betting that automation will change everything. Guidance and sprayers that automatically turn on and off have been rapidly adopted because they don’t require additional time from the grower, Erickson says.

It’s too early to say what the future will look like. Only one thing is for certain: The farmer’s experience must be at the center of the next tech revolution. If a new gadget or process can’t prove its return on investment, it probably won’t make it to the field.

About the Author(s)

Andy Castillo

Andy Castillo started his career in journalism about a decade ago as a television news cameraperson and producer before transitioning to a regional newspaper covering western Massachusetts, where he wrote about local farming.

Between military deployments with the Air Force and the news, he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University, building on the English degree he earned from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He's a multifaceted journalist with a diverse skill set, having previously worked as an EMT and firefighter, a nightclub photographer, caricaturist, features editor at the Greenfield Recorder and a writer for GoNomad Travel. 

Castillo splits his time between the open road and western Massachusetts with his wife, Brianna, a travel nurse who specializes in pediatric oncology, and their rescue pup, Rio. When not attending farm shows, Castillo enjoys playing music, snowboarding, writing, cooking and restoring their 1920 craftsman bungalow.

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