At the Farm GateInnovation grows on the farm
As infatuated as I am with old barns and windmills, I’m equally captivated by rows of young corn plants that don’t overlap at the end rows, a pleasing visual credited to satellite technology and automatic planter row shutoffs. Photographs of our farm’s old barns decorate walls of the farm office, where the top of a weathered windmill also backdrops my desk. The newest canvas print on the wall shows modern machines harvesting biotech crops near the solar panels that help power our grain drying and storage.
We fondly respect the farm’s nostalgic qualities as well as the generations of innovation that have improved the farm and likewise the world. “Innovation grows here” and represents the topic of a new docuseries at the Illinois Farm Families web site WatchUsGrow.org. As a kid, my grandpa remembers farming with horses to grow feed for his own livestock. He retired with hands-free, satellite-guided steering in a high-horsepower tractor to grow grain and oilseed for a global market.
Innovation on the farm leaps significantly one generation to the next, just as smartphones, online shopping, and Zoom have changed modern life. Satellite-guided machinery drives with greater accuracy than car navigation systems to precisely place seed and nutrients. Seed biotechnology produces more crops with fewer inputs and less environmental impact. Farmers grow cleaner-burning fuel from corn and soybeans, a local-grown, renewable resource producing more than 1.7 billion gallons of renewable biofuels in Illinois alone.
Modern livestock farmers tell me about smarter barns that automatically control air quality or customize feed rations based on scans of an animal’s identification tag. At our grain storage facility, my brother controls grain drying and monitors grain temperature from his tablet. We can observe solar energy production from an app, watch market prices on the go, and receive alerts when hail potentially damages crops in a field miles away from the home farm.
Evolving farm practices that improve the bottom line often benefit the environment, a reason innovation will continue. Our farm planted more cover crops than ever in fall 2020. Ground cover of cereal rye, balansa clover and radish (the type to reduce soil compaction, not eat) grow in fields to control erosion and hold nutrients in place until we plant the next crop.
When our kids schooled remotely during harvest, we had plenty of cab time to talk technology and how their great-grandparents farmed. The older ones learned to drive a tractor with a modern-day transmission, too. The experiences strengthen their respect for the farm, its history, and the innovation that helps fulfill our duty to leave the land better than we found it.
About the author: Joanie Stiers’ family grows corn, soybeans and hay and raises beef cattle and backyard chickens in West-Central Illinois.