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U.S. agriculture… connecting the dotsU.S. agriculture… connecting the dots

In the midst of change, U.S. farmers are preparing for another crop year and planning for a world in which we will capitalize on past progress in order to meet future demands of an ever-increasing population.

February 21, 2014

8 Min Read

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward — you can only connect the dots looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, one of the brains of technology at Apple, knew a lot about success and meeting the needs of people who often didn’t know they would actually need what Apple would produce. He and his colleagues spent a fair amount of time looking back and seeing how the dots they had put in place connected to their future and the future of Apple customers.

As I “look backwards,” what I find is that we have been placing the dots, and connecting them as we went: We talked a lot about connectivity, our connected world, the world at our fingertips, and the role that connectivity has played in moving us forward.

Looking back and considering the dots we were connecting, how many of us — even five short years ago — would have known we “needed” something we could carry in our pocket (or briefcase) that would access the Internet, take and store images, guide us to our next meeting, store thousands of audio files, and instantly bring up our e-mail, along with many other tasks and services available with applications we would download — and pay for — directly to these devices?

Today, these devices are commonplace, critical to our farm and business operations, and a rather large dot on the continuum of connections.

In retrospect, 2013, like many years before it, was a year of change and volatility, uncertainty and opportunity, fueled by technology and connections.

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And, here we are again, in the midst of change, preparing for another crop year and planning for a world in which we will capitalize on past progress in order to meet future demands of an ever-increasing population.

Those future demands of a growing population zero in on food production and the race to feed the expected 9 billion people expected to inhabit the earth in 2050.

In reality, that’s not very far away, and thus, American farmers — the most productive and innovative food producers in the world — feel the burden.

Our farmers are using innovative genetics to grow an abundance of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. And, they are transferring their skills to their peers in other parts of the world, often in third world countries, so those farmers can acquire the tools they need to feed their families and others in their communities.

Looking back at the dots we have created over the past decades, we are finding that the connection to the future, in which 9 billion mouths will need to be fed, involves doing what we do best  — teaching others how to raise crops on their land in order to feed their families and others.

It will truly take a village to feed the world, and it will happen through the use of technology and skills transfer.

So, what else might the future hold?

An article in the April 2013 edition of Cosmos magazine predicted what agriculture might look like in 2063, 50 years from now.

It surmised that technology holds the promise for farmers in all parts of the world to acquire the tools for a sustainable global agriculture ecosystem that will produce sufficient crops for the expanding population in all parts of the world.

The article also did a bit of looking back of its own with a group of scientists’ 2011 five-point plan for meeting the “world’s future food security and sustainability needs.” That list included protecting the rainforest from agriculture expansion, closing the yield gap, reducing waste, and using resources more efficiently.

If we assess that list three years later, I would say the dots are connecting for the future. And in broad terms, the list touches on what the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show has been about for decades:

• Land and water issues

• Technology

• The free enterprise system

• Efficient use of resources to reduce waste and enhance food security

Each year, farmers from across the nation and around the world converge on the Cook Convention Center in Memphis to see modern, innovative equipment and technology and learn about the products and services they can add to their toolbox for the coming year, and in the future.

Additionally, educational seminars feature current topics such as land and water issues, production challenges, risk management and marketing.

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These farmers are schooled in the global marketplace, adept at managing risk, and operating through world dynamics and within trade rules. Our world-class farmers/operators are likely our single greatest asset to continue this country’s leadership in agriculture production.

And at the show, they get the first look at the technology, equipment, products and services that others throughout the world will have to wait a few years to experience.

The rest of the world is catching on to what we have here, and what is on display at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show, making the first farm show of the season an attraction for domestic and international visitors.

Each year we know those who attend the show hail from every state in the nation and 15 or more foreign countries. And in a few years, we expect many more people from around the world will be exposed to the exhibitors, technology, equipment, and services exhibited in Memphis at the Cook Convention Center. Some of those visitors will likely be from China, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and hugely important to American farmers.


China, our biggest competitor and our biggest customer, is beginning to realize it can’t feed its people with outdated policies, and that it needs the latest equipment and technology to meet its domestic needs. In fact, the Chinese government is looking at agriculture and is considering reforming agriculture and implementing policies the U.S. is now moving away from.

Think about it: China, a country which has long sought to control its producers and production, is considering emulating one of the most successful farm policies in the world, the free-enterprise U.S. model. Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery.

Technology as risk management tool

Over the past years, people have been using technology as never before: from the NSA eavesdropping on American citizens and world leaders to the introduction of drones and remote sensors in agriculture.

Technology is exciting and scary all at once. We’re excited about the opportunities it brings, yet afraid of the data it collects and what that means to us individually and as an industry.

Still, technology can benefit us greatly as we manage our finite resources and seek to manage our risks.

Technology in irrigation systems can produce enormous resource efficiencies and economic savings; GPS/GIS systems support micronutrient management, applying critical nutrients just where, and when, they’re needed.

Precision agriculture allows farmers and agronomists to apply products to protect crops from insect outbreaks, and top-line genetics results in hybrids that ward off pest and disease, meaning farmers’ use of chemical products is lower. Small and medium-sized companies are championing the adoption of these technologies and farmers are quickly signing on.

Twenty years ago, farmers who installed yield monitors in their combines were heralded as renegades. Today, those farmers have 20 years of data gleaned specifically from their farm fields, which they can use to tweak the hybrids they use and the populations they plant, maximizing productivity and economic efficiency, while reducing the inherent risk associated with farming.

Yield monitors were just the beginning. Today’s tractors and combines sport not only yield monitors, but satellite technology to prescriptively apply plant nutrients and crop protectants, and auto-steer, which frees a farmer up to research new hybrids and technology, or communicate with suppliers, lenders, and landlords, all while planting and harvesting a crop.

The introduction and adoption of technology, which allows American farmers to be the most productive on the planet, extends beyond an individual farmer’s farmgate to local charities and other volunteer activities.

The desire to give back will again be a feature of this year’s show. Saturday, March 1, local FFA chapters will join to package 20,000 nutritious meals to be distributed to the underprivileged or those recovering from natural disasters. The 20,000 meal goal is double the number packaged at last year’s show.

Where it all comes together

The Mid-South Farm and Gin Show is truly where it all comes together. Interactive exhibits, innovative technology, educational and Ag Update seminars, and opportunities to connect with farmers and others you may only see annually — at the South’s Premier Agricultural Event.

This event is one in which we are reminded of how truly blessed we are. We have been surprised by the record-breaking yields that just a few years ago would have seemed truly bizarre. Hybrid improvement and enhanced management have produced yields in some flat areas like never experienced before.

We know if we’re in agriculture, we face risk every year, and this produces a farm population that is very resilient, generation to generation. We are prepared for drought or flood, bountiful crop or bust, higher input prices and lower commodity prices.

Regardless of the year’s turn of events, the year is not as much a character builder as it is a year that reveals the character that’s already there.

Abraham Lincoln said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” And that day-at-a-time allows us to look back and connect the dots in our future.

Don’t miss this year’s Mid-South Farm and Gin Show: Feb. 28-March 1 at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis!

Tim Price is Executive Vice President/Show Manager for the Southern Cotton Ginners Association.

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