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OM in the News: Productivity and Technology Down on the Farm

February 28, 2014
An Iowa farmer using tractor-mounted computers to help make decisions about planting crops

An Iowa farmer using tractor-mounted computers to help make decisions about planting crops

We are fully aware that few of our students will be entering jobs in agriculture (see Figure 1.5  in Chapter 1 for employment figures in the U.S. manufacturing, service, and farm sectors). Yet this Wall Street Journal (Feb. 26, 2014) article on the next revolution on the farm is still worth sharing with your class. The revolution will come from feeding data gathered by tractors and other machinery into computers that tell farmers how to increase their output of crops like corn and soybeans.

Monsanto, DuPont, and other companies are racing to roll out “prescriptive planting” technology to farmers across the U.S. who know from years of experience that tiny adjustments in planting depth or the distance between crop rows can make a big difference in revenue at harvest time. Many tractors and combines already are guided by Global Positioning System satellites that plant ever-straighter rows while farmers, freed from steering, monitor progress on iPads and other tablet computers now common in tractor cabs. The same machinery collects data on crops and soil. But many farmers have haphazardly managed the information, scattered in piles of paperwork in their offices or stored on thumb drives clattering in their pickup truck ashtrays.

Algorithms and human experts crunch all the data and can zap advice directly to farmers and their machines. Supporters say the push could be as important as the development of mechanized modified seeds in the 1990s. Data-driven planting advice to farmers could increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year, or about one-third the value of last year’s U.S. corn crop. The technology could help improve the average corn harvest to more than 200 bushels an acre from the current 160 bushels. Such a gain would generate an extra $182 an acre in revenue for farmers.

Classroom discussion questions:
1. Why are farmers concerned about Monsanto’s involvement?

2. How has productivity improved over the past decades on farms?

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