By Patrick Smith
Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series of articles that will highlight NCTC’s Smart Rural Community award from the NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association.
Today, if farmers need rain for their crops, all they have to do is push a button.
Day or night, farmers can activate a center pivot irrigation system from their smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. The large metal tube system sprays water on the crops when Mother Nature isn’t cooperating. It’s one of the many new conveniences that technology provides today’s farmers.
From tractors equipped with an automated steering system and instant access to grain market reports, to soil testings and yield monitoring, technology plays a vital role for modern, tech-savvy cultivators by increasing efficiency and lowering expenses.
For farmers, things have moved fast in the past few decades.
Steve Walker believes he was one of the first people in Macon County to get a cellular phone in the late 1980s. Walker, who retired in December 2014 from his position as the Macon County extension agent, is currently working as an agronomy consultant and outside sales representative with the Macon-Trousdale Farmers Co-op store. Walker, 58, grew up around farming and has been involved heavily since the early ‘80s.
He’s seen technology continually change, especially as smartphones and broadband have brought some of the biggest advancements. “Technology plays a vital role in production agriculture today,” says Walker.
Changes in farming technology, along with advances in broadband Internet speeds, allow farmers to do nearly everything on the go. The fast connection provided through NCTC’s fiber network is one reason North Central’s service area was designated a “Smart Rural Community” by NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. NTCA developed the Smart Rural Community award as a way to recognize cooperatives that are promoting and using broadband networks to foster innovative economic development, education, health care and government services.
“Nearly everything can be performed from a field situation,” says Walker. “Broadband and cell phones have made farmers a lot more efficient during the day.”
Many farmers use “auto-steer” technology on several pieces of equipment. It allows the tractors to be programmed and driven by an on-board computer — the driver’s hands aren’t even required to be on the wheel. Also available are monitors that control the amount of fertilizer used when spraying crops.
This helps farmers reduce costs while providing benefits to the environment by reducing the amount of chemicals used. Farmers are also using soil testing to oversee chemical levels and make sure their soil is hearty. A mobile GPS system will put them in the exact same place each year to monitor the area’s soil health.
Additional technology, known as “variable-rate seeding,” is advancing how farmers plant their crops. Looking at previous years’ yield data, a farmer can pinpoint where the most and least fertile parts of his fields are, then control how crops are planted in the best and worst areas.
Walker, like many farmers, doesn’t see the advancements stopping anytime soon. “There’s still a lot of hard labor that farmers do each day, but it’s pretty amazing to think about the things that can be done with today’s farming technology,” he says.
1. Tobacco is one of the biggest crops in NCTC’s service area, as seen at this Pleasant Shade farm.
2. Steve Walker has spent more than 30 years in the farming industry.