Over centuries, agricultural technology has created huge changes in the way people live, and the stakes for technological progress have never been higher.
Bestselling author Charles C. Mann wrote about how Christopher Columbus' arrival in America. Mann said the crops Columbus brought back from his voyages started the first wave of globalization.
"It was huge,” Mann said. “Before the potato and corn came in, Europe was on the edge of starvation and had been for centuries. In a place like France, there is one major nationwide famine, uh more than one a decade. And there are hundreds and hundreds of local famines."
Mann said the agricultural technology transfer of corn and potatoes allowed huge increases in population. That gave rise to a middle class, and, a few centuries down the road, the industrial revolution.
At the Illinois State University experimental farms, Agriculture Department Chair Rob Rhykerd stands in the livestock barn looking at cattle and sheep.
A serious drought this year has hurt farm productivity, but Rhykerd said this year’s reduced crop would be the envy of farmers a generation ago.
"Yields of corn here in central Illinois right after World War II probably looking in the fifty to eighty bushel per acre range and now an average year in McLean County is around 180 bushels per acre, so more than doubled production in the last fifty years," Rhykerd said.
According to Rhykerd, no one thing accounts for the huge productivity increase.
"We've gone from traditional hybrids into genetically modified crops,” he said. “We've improved our efficiency using fertilizers. That has been a major advancement. We've gotten much better in the last fifty years conserving our resources, soil in particular, but also water."
Combines have changed a lot over the year. They have ballooned from harvesting two or four rows to sixteen and planters now put in forty eight rows of seeds at a pass.
Use of GPS and yield monitors to measure productivity is standard. A decade ago the buzz term was "precision farming."
ISU Agriculture Professor Dick Steffen said that has been slower to develop than originally envisioned. Like all information technology pursuits, it is tough to get each piece of equipment to interface with the others.
Steffen said true interactive precision is closer to reality now. Cameras on booms can allow a computer to distinguish weeds from crops.
"So that as it goes along through the field if it spots a weed, it activates the spray nozzle just where the weed is rather than spraying the whole field," Steffen said.
Steffen said what amounts to robotic farming is coming.
"There are a number of pieces of equipment around the country in research labs and in trials where they have taken operators out of the loop and the equipment operates basically autonomously," Steffen said.
“One of the major equipment companies is looking at using drones flying over fields,” farmer John Reifsteck said
Riefsteck farms south of Champaign. He is on the Growmark Board of Directors and has served on the Technical Advisory Committee of the American Farm Bureau.
Reifsteck said there may eventually be sensors on those drones to detect weeds, insects, or disease pressure.
"Hey look! There's a problem in this corner of the field,” Reifsteck said. “You know the corn may be seven foot tall, but we see something that you need to get out there and take a look at."
Reifsteck said the pace of technology change is not slowing, especially the area of plant genetics.
"When I first started farming for example the seeds I would buy, the hybrids, we might have those for four five six seven years on my farm before something would replace it,” he said. “Today we're seeing those get replaced every two or three years."
The base genetics of crops are changing to allow higher yields. At the same time, scientists are adding traits for insect protection, weed control, the ability to grow in hot, dry, wet, and cool places.
Reifsteck plants up to three kinds of seed in his fields. He said better information might eventually kick that up to six.
"For example where you had water logging, you might have something that has better root systems that can deal with water logged roots,” Reifsteck said. “But on higher ground you might have more prolific roots.”
All the information each farmer accumulates about his own land may eventually be shared. Reifsteck said it remains to be seen who controls the so called era of "big data."
In whatever form, Reifsteck said, data will be an important product farmers buy.
"The idea that you could take a particular seed variety and see how it performs throughout the U.S. corn belt and what are the best ways to plant it and what the best population, the best fertility, the best weed control programs and be able to measure those things and use that data is really exciting,” he said.
In a way, the present era is bringing farming full circle from the 19th century.
ISU Ag Professor Dick Steffen said when small farmers had a lot of time on horse drawn implements, they knew their land intimately, by the inch. As farm sizes grew, farmers made choices for their entire operation.
"And now with this equipment that allows us to map and allows us to record data about a lot of different points, we are at the point that we can go back to that level of management we saw a century ago," Steffen said.
However, all the productivity gains in the last half century are not enough.
Many projections indicate the world wide stream of agricultural products must double in yield in less than forty years. The World Bank estimates two billion more people will inhabit the earth by mid-century. It's also not just the extra people.
Farmer John Reifsteck said as nations develop, citizens upgrade their diets. Some of the people already here will want to eat more and better, and it takes more grain to turn it into meat than it does just to feed people.
Food tech has to advance so we won't have to go back to the bad old days author Charles Mann chronicles before the first global agricultural revolution in 1492.
"Each city would have a granary that would be surrounded by armed guard," Mann said.
High tech agriculture is a necessity, and that approach to farming requires highly educated farmers at a time the Ag workforce is aging and shrinking.
That issue is the subject of our next report tomorrow.