Iowa Public Television


Family Farm Becomes Technological Wonder

posted on November 10, 2006

Every year, American farmers spend more than $30 billion on production inputs – seed, fertilizer, chemicals, and energy needs. Those huge expenditures have triggered a whole new way of thinking about how to farm.

Precision farming is a product of that thinking. It integrates technologies that retain the benefits of large-scale mechanization, but recognizes local agronomic variation. By using satellite data to determine soil conditions and plant development, precision farming can lower costs by fine-tuning seed rates, chemical application, and water use.

As Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains in this first of two segments on hi-tech farming, the results can be rewarding, while benefiting the environment.

Family Farm Becomes Technological Wonder Clay Mitchell farms with his mother, father and great-uncle on a 2,500-acre centennial farm in Northeast Iowa. While the family raises typical Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans, the operation is anything but average. In the last few years, Mitchell has spoken on six continents and been featured in TIME magazine. Visitors from all around the world show up to tour the farm, and young people studying agriculture pursue internships with the Mitchells. This year, the family is hosting two students --one from the U.S. and another from Germany.

Clay Mitchell, Iowa farmer: "The problems that we're trying to solve here are no different from any other family farm. But, we value originality and look to take a different approach."

Original is a modest way to describe the Mitchell farm. 33-year-old Clay and his father, Wade, essentially have turned their 100-year-old homestead into a technological wonder. In 2002, the Mitchells combined an automatic guidance system with DSL Internet access, provided by a wireless farm computer network. This transformed their tractor and combine cabs from steering platforms into what they describe as "offices on wheels."

Wade Mitchell, Iowa farmers: "We're finding that the cab is really the base of operations. It becomes kind of a center for decision making. We have time to think and go over the planning and strategies for the farm."

They practice controlled-traffic farming, where the machinery paths in the field are done deliberately and sequentially. The primary benefit is the increase in reduced soil compaction. Utilizing real-time kinematics, or RTK, tractor paths can be repeated within the season, or from year to year with essentially perfect accuracy.

The farm is almost fully automated with tractors that steer themselves and a sprayer that knows when to turn its nozzles on and off, individually.

Guidance systems are an important tool for producers and are especially advantageous for precise application of fertilizer and chemicals. Tractors on the Mitchell farm apply fertilizer and chemicals in a tight band around the seed, cutting their nitrogen use by 30 to 40 percent and pesticide use by 20 percent, as well as, making overlapping obsolete.

Wade Mitchell, Iowa farmer: "I didn't realize the yield drag we were getting where we overlapped chemicals...and a lot of these technologies when they've come together, we've found synergies like that, that provided benefit that we didn't really see going into it. It's really seldom that we've ever seen a drawback to any. Can you think of any? It just seems complimentary."

The fact that both father and son have engineering degrees, makes it easier for the Mitchells to understand the programming and mechanical design of the newest technology. In 1999, Clay graduated from Harvard with a degree in biomedical engineering. The duo often takes ideas that already exist and reconstructs different controls to fit their farming needs. But, they point out that they are not using technology just for technology sake.

Clay Mitchell, Iowa farmer: "It always works a lot better when a person really understands a problem that they're trying to solve. It is natural then to find the best or most efficient solution. A lot of times, people go the opposite way, there is a neat technology or a new technology and they try to find a use for it and that is never very successful."

Tony Grift, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: "I've never seen anything what the Mitchells are doing, not in America, not even in Europe."

Tony Grift, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says the Mitchells are the most progressive farmers in the country.

Tony Grift, University of Illinois: "That is the big difference between what we're trying to do and what they do. They bring the technology together with agronomy and they really make it work. The economic bottom line is what matters for them and that makes it very different, and that's why a lot of companies and universities are very interested in what they do because they do the real thing. They have the super precise guidance and that's how they can make it work."

Because of new technologies, the Mitchells are trying a different cropping system. Strip-intercropping is the growing of different crops in alternate strips on the same field. The practice is common in the developing world, only farmers there, plant by hand, but as far as Grift knows, the Mitchell farm is the only mechanized example.

Clay Mitchell, Iowa farmer: "With the intercropping by putting the corn and soybeans close together, the higher value crop being the tall crop gets more sunlight resources and yields relatively more. So, we're shifting our land and sun resources to the higher value crop and that is really enabled by the kind of high precision navigation that we have now and biotech crops, having Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, for example, enables intercropping."

Join us next week, as we visit the Mitchells during harvest to see if the technologies they're using are helping yields.

Clay Mitchell: "Here in the United States, the real big contraint on farming is the high cost and low availability of land. And a lot of the methods we use, the technologies we use really maximize those resources. And when those are in the hands of family farmers, then it makes it viable".

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.

Tags: agriculture farms news technology