Trial, error and ingenuity: Traditional farm tinkering goes high tech

Karen Chapman

I grew up on my grandfather’s 65-acre farm in Central Ohio. In the 1960’s and 70’s he grew sweet corn, silage corn and clover hay, raised meat chickens and kept laying hens.

My grandfather also loved to tinker in his workshop. Like farmers everywhere, he was always fixing things, coaxing more life out of his machinery and inventing ways to make farm work easier. For example, he built what the family called his “loony vehicle” (derived from “lunar vehicle,” which it resembled) that he rode around the farm. He also invented a strange contraption (think Wallace and Gromit) to pluck chicken feathers.

This quaint picture of the small family farm is obviously not the norm these days. Since I came back to Ohio to work on agriculture and water quality for EDF seven years ago, I’ve thought a lot about the farm I grew up on and how different it was from the large-scale farms of today. Even then the face of farming was changing. Farmers and agribusinesses were consolidating land and operations, buying more acreage to increase efficiency.

Hi-tech comes to the farm

Today, Midwestern farms are mostly sophisticated, data—driven businesses that grow high-yielding crops to meet growing global demand. And they’re doing it amid increasingly uncertain weather and climatic conditions.

Still, despite all the changes that have occurred, farmers remain, like my grandfather, restless innovators. They are willing to experiment, tinker with, re-shape and ultimately perfect new tools and techniques that over time become the norm in agriculture.

My grandfather, were he around today, would have been fascinated by the increasing sophistication of modern farming – with its yield monitors, nitrogen sensors, aerial imagery analyses and smart-phone apps to help with field-level decision-making. And I think he would have instinctively understood that those farmers who are most willing and best able to keep up with technology and test new techniques are often also the ones who can best understand and manage their own environmental footprint.

One clear example of this is cover crops. Planting a winter cover crop after harvesting a cash crop helps to hold topsoil in place during storms, increases water infiltration, takes up nutrients that would otherwise be lost (perhaps as runoff flowing into our lakes and streams) and maintains soil microbial activity. It’s just an all around good thing – whether you’re a farmer or an environmentalist.

But planting cover crops isn’t a simple matter. It is difficult to plant cover crop stands in time for them to achieve maturity after the last cash crop but before the first winter freeze, particularly following corn harvest.

Trial, error and ingenuity

Enter the tinkerer. Hundreds of farmers have been experimenting with cover crop varieties and seeding techniques, learning as they go. Some farmers in Ohio and Pennsylvania and elsewhere have re-engineered equipment in order to be able to seed cover crops directly into standing corn prior to harvest. Rye grass, radish, clover and peas are popular cover crops which can be seeded this way.

These farmers have not only adapted their machinery, but are also contracting with neighboring farmers to seed their acres in the fall. Gradually, as the benefits of cover crops become more apparent, the work of these farming innovators is becoming the new standard.

This transition toward cover crops is just one example of how farmers continue tinkering their way toward better farming, healthier soil and cleaner water. I think my grandfather would approve.