I’ve noticed something over the last few decades, there are fewer farmers and farm workers around town. In the summer, you used to see farm caps on every fourth head and the owner was typically either a farmer or hired hand. Larger farms make efficient use of huge equipment that can perform work with much less human assistance.
Fewer farms mean fewer people grow up on farms and gain the skills associated with that life. At one time, everyone either grew up on a farm or had a friend who lived on a farm. Most people gained a few skills on the farm which could be used later in life, even if the person didn’t become a farmer. Fewer farms mean fewer people grow up learning the skills that lend themselves to working on a farm.
You can see the effect of fewer skilled workers in the sophistication of farm implements. I remember the first time I saw broad use of automatic transmissions in farm trucks-a change I liked. However, making my life easier wasn’t the main point of the automatic transmission, one driver of this change was that fewer people could drive a stick-shift. Large truck transmissions are more difficult to learn than a passenger car stick-shift however the passenger car version at least gave you the basic skills. Today many people do not have any background with a manual transmission which creates the demand for trucks with automatic transmissions.
Global positioning (GPS) for tractors and implements was driven by efficiency in the application of seed, fertilizer and chemical. A skilled tractor operator did a pretty good job of applying crop inputs however operators with fewer skills do a less-efficient job which decreases efficiency. This opened the door for highly efficient GPS and auto steer. The first time I drove a tractor with auto steer, I scoffed a little however I also enjoyed it.
The most-recent development on the farm is the autonomous tractor. This isn’t a remote-control tractor, it is a tractor that puts in crops all by itself. DOT Autonomous Systems has been testing an autonomous tractor in the field which may soon be ready for the real world. The autonomous tractor is built in the shape of a “U”-the open space of the “U” is there so the tractor can slide around an implement such as a seeder or sprayer. The tractor uses implements that are already available and need only an adapter to be part of the autonomous system. It really doesn’t look like a tractor but it works like a tractor. All it needs it fuel and some maintenance-it never needs sleep and it is incredibly efficient. I don’t know that we will see these units is this area however there places with sections of open field without roads or borders that may fit this type of farming.
Farming is changing so quickly right now. Farm profitability is fairly low which might slow changes however those who rely on high-efficiency may see opportunity. Changes to reduce the human element as opposed to accommodating the human element could mean more predictable profits. I understand it but I am still nostalgic for a time when you could stand at a gravel road intersection and see four or five different farmers at work. I could maybe even be nostalgic for some of the more complex manual transmissions. I definitely will miss all of those farm hats.