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OM in the News: Technology Driving the Farm Tractors

April 25, 2016
Dwindling farm incomes and open-source software are inspiring homespun hackers, helping advance farming technology. In Manitoba, farmer Matt Reimer has created a tractor that drives itself.

Homespun hackers are helping advance farming technology. Farmer Matt Reimer has created a tractor that drives itself.

The green tractor trundling across a Manitoba field with an empty cab looks like it’s on a collision course with Matt Reimer’s combine—until it neatly turns to pull alongside so he can pour freshly harvested wheat into its trailer. The robot tractor isn’t a prototype or top-of-the-line showpiece. It’s an 8-year-old John Deere that Reimer modified with drone parts, open-source software and a Microsoft  tablet. All told, those items cost him around $8,000. “Reimer’s alterations are part of a technology revolution sweeping North America’s breadbasket,” writes The Wall Street Journal (April 19. 2016).

Farmers, many of them self-taught, are building their own robotic equipment, satellite-navigation networks and mobile applications, moving their tinkering projects out of machine sheds and behind a computer screen. This homespun hacking—which sometimes leapfrogs innovations by big equipment companies like John Deere and Trimble Navigation—reflects dwindling farm incomes, the low price of electronic hardware and, sometimes, off-season boredom. Technology is already firmly rooted in modern farming, allowing a shrinking number of farmers to oversee more acres. Advances like auto-steering tractors have freed some farmers to trade futures contracts on their smartphones from inside a tractor cab, pausing only to turn and stop their machines. Defectors from Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google and Yahoo are building software to analyze soil and manage fertilizer use.

With less money to spend, some farmers say they can build their own tools, suited to their farms, at a lower cost. “Poverty is the mother of invention,” said farmer Jim Poyzer, who used to be a programmer. During the winter months Poyzer began tinkering with a microprocessor, eventually developing a system to monitor and adjust how many seeds his planter places in his Iowa fields. The system tailors the flow of seeds to the soil’s ability to produce healthy crops.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What other tools of OM can farmers employ to increase productivity and profits?
  2. Why are the large equipment manufacturers leading the technology charge?
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