Conjure in your mind a generic image of a farmer, and you probably envision a grizzled man in dirty overalls milking a cow in the blue predawn light. While this image may once have been accurate, in recent years technology has revolutionized farming just as it has countless other industries. The typical day for a modern farmer may still begin around the time the rooster crows, but the farmer’s daily routine is likely far more technology-driven than you might imagine. There are still crops to be sown and animals to feed, but the daily maintenance and operation of a modern farm is just as influenced by technological innovation as daily life in any urban metropolis.
Farmers like Brandon Hunnicutt of Hunnicutt Farms and Karah Perdue have watched as their family farms have evolved since the days of their youths that were spent helping their parents tend to the land and animals. While they, and now their own children, serve as caretakers of their family operations, their days on the farm are spent much differently now thanks to advancements in agricultural technology.
Brandon's family has farmed the land in Giltner, Nebraska, for well over a century. Recent innovations have allowed Brandon and his brother, who run the family farm together, to maximize the potential of their land by harnessing the benefits of technology. Precision technology allows farmers to be more precise than ever before, which conserves resources, like water, and promotes soil health. Meanwhile, for Brandon and his family, modern farming technology has enabled them to "run longer hours" and, ultimately, to get more out of their land than ever before by allowing the technology to "do the work," thereby freeing up more of their time to manage the land and work smarter, better, and faster than ever before.
Meanwhile, Karah Perdue runs a farm in York, Nebraska, approximately 50 miles west of Lincoln, with her husband and four children. Including partnerships with fellow farmers, the Perdues’ diversified farm consists of approximately 1,500 acres and includes a cow/calf operation; row crops such as corn, milo and soybeans; and a pullet barn, where they raise young hens.
A self-described “farmer’s daughter,” Karah grew up watching her father manage a farm on traditional, low-tech methods that were laborious and often inefficient. Now, she manages a farm that utilizes some of the most sophisticated modern technologies available in order to raise healthy animals and manage the soil responsibly and sustainably.
Perhaps the greatest difference in farming today versus a half-century ago is the move away from labor-intensive practices to a system operated and managed, in large part, by machines and technology. One example, described by Karah in a recent interview, is irrigation. She grew up watching her father lay thousands of feet of pipe by hand to cover an entire field. Today, by contrast, most irrigation involves the use of pivots, whereby a large metal pipe rotates around a circular pivot and crops are watered with sprinklers—an innovation that has eliminated the need for hundreds of man-hours that are now free for other tasks. This has allowed the Perdues to expand the size and scope of their operations and to manage their farm much more efficiently.
Sustainable, so-called precision farming has also been aided significantly by technology. Karah describes listening to farmers of her father’s generation discussing how they struggled to seed their crops in the straightest lines possible, all by hand and estimation. Now, precision-planting technology employs satellite and GPS data, which allows for planting in a perfectly straight line along any desired axis. This efficiency, in turn, allows farmers to maximize a field’s production while also reducing wear and tear and soil compaction.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Karah believes life on the farm has taught her children is an appreciation for the love and labor that goes into the farm, the animals and especially the land. Karah said that if there was only one message she could impart to the public at large about modern farm life, it is the following: “We really care about our crops, our animals and our land. I don’t know that we can emphasize that enough. We aren’t trying to make money at the expense of land or animals. Farmers want to leave a legacy, to leave it for the next generation. Making money is a part of life—you have to have that to buy groceries, and we go to the grocery store and the farmer’s market just like everybody else—but that isn’t the most important thing. We want to preserve the land—not just preserve it, but to make it better for the next generation.”
THE greatest difference in farming today versus a half-century ago is the move away from labor-intensive practices to a system operated and managed, in large part, by machines and technology.
During a recent interview, Karah emphasized two points over and over: her family’s care for their animals and their focus on sustainable farming.
The Perdues think of their animals as part of their family. Their cows and pigs—and even some of the 40,000 chicks—get names, and her children raise and care for their own pigs, which they show at local fairs. As Karah explained, “When you name them and give them a presence in your family and talk about them, you feel connected to them. And if you can treat an animal with compassion and integrity, you can treat people that way too.” That mentality likely explains why one of her greatest joys is watching her children manage the responsibilities of raising and caring for their livestock; she references their growth and compassion for the animals as “the biggest reward.”
Soil health is also far easier to maintain, because soil samples can be taken in a grid pattern and analyzed to determine the potential deficiencies of each individual grid. Utilizing this method, farmers can microtarget individual soil grids using tractors designed to deliver quantified amounts of various seed supplements with precision. This reduces the overall level of insect and weed control products in the soil, as only those that are needed are applied, and then only to the areas where they are lacking—thereby helping the soil’s natural microbiome to flourish.
The benefits of modern technology are most evident in the Perdues’ chicken operation. The family manages a pullet barn that is larger than a football field, which houses, at any given time, roughly 40,000 pullets, the formal name for those fuzzy yellow baby chicks prevalent in commercials every year around Easter. The barn is what’s known as a “shower-in” facility: whoever comes in to manage the chickens must shower upon arrival, before donning specialized sanitary clothing that stays in the facility, in order to prevent the introduction of foreign material, bacteria or disease. The barn is managed entirely by a computer system that controls the temperature, humidity and other factors. Karah can pull up an app on her phone that allows her to check on the condition of the barn from anywhere in the world; the app also notifies her of any problems that arise, such as the time she received a warning that one of her fans was out, thereby altering the temperature in the barn to suboptimal levels. As Karah explained, when everything is in working order, the environment inside the barn is static—it can be blazing hot or below zero outside, but the chickens are just as comfortably warm as they would be at any other time of year.
"We really care about our crops, our animals and our land. I don’t know that we can emphasize that enough."