Despite what Brad Wade calls “the romance” of farming - that cherished image of the farmer on his tractor, in the middle of a golden field - the future lies in robotics: self-guided, satellite-controlled machinery that helps the modern farmer grow as efficiently as possible. “We literally ‘farm by the foot’ now,” says Brad. “There are ‘eyes’ on machinery to spot weeds and autonomous tractors in the field.” Though it sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, Brad insists that these changes are necessary. Of course, farmers still monitor and inspect crops daily, but technology has improved productivity.
“In 20 years, we are going to have another couple billion people to feed and consumption of soy will double,” Brad estimates. “We are going to have to get the most out of every acre.”
From Dawn to Dusk
As a kid, Paul Dietrich remembers riding around in the back of his grandpa’s combine, corn piling up around him in the warm autumn sun. This fourth-generation farmer still enjoys getting out in the field every day, whether he’s inspecting his crops, or he's in a semi truck filling up grain and soybean bins during harvest season. “We’re usually up by 5:45 a.m. every morning,” says Paul, laying out a typical day. “We spend an hour or two inspecting our machinery, making repairs, refueling.” Then he might be out in the field until 8 p.m. or later in the evening. “And we get up the next day and do it all over again,” he laughs. But on the seventh day, he rests. “On Sundays, I’ll go to church with my family,” says Paul, enjoying a rare day of well-deserved relaxation, after which, you can find him cheering on his beloved University of Iowa Hawkeyes.
Less Is More
Robert Kozishek would describe his approach to farming as “conservative,” adding, “We don’t dive into anything without a plan.” It all begins with seed selection and planting the right type of seed in the correct soil. Some soybean seeds are well adapted to good rich, black soil, while others grow better on a hillside, with more clay. He is careful to reduce tillage of the land, which can erode topsoil, and is equally careful when combatting pests, such as aphids or bean-leaf beetles. “We use only the minimal amount of product,” he says, “well in advance of harvest.”
A Growth Enterprise
With a degree in accounting, Thomas McAllister believes that even small family farmers must take the business of farming seriously. “We have to be profitable in this economy to meet the capital-intensive demands of technology-driven 21st Century farming,” he explains. To that end, Thomas engages in futures commodity trading that some of his peers find risky, but Thomas argues it helps mitigate the biggest risk of all: battling Mother Nature.
“First thing in the morning, I’m on the Internet, checking the markets,” he says. “Then I’m out in my truck checking the crops.” While many of his peers contemplate retirement, it’s the last thing on Thomas’ mind. “I am my own boss and I love what I do.”
Farming for the Greater Good
Back in the ’70s, Brian Schaumburg thought he would major in English or journalism, until he took an agriculture class. He joined his family’s corn and soybean farm when he learned that the soybean, a “perfect protein,” could be the “miracle crop” that would stave off world starvation. That same sense of farming for the greater good has stayed with him all these years later. He would like to see more young people get passionate about farming. “It’s not for the faint of heart, but you can make a difference in the world,” Brian insists.
“We take tremendous pride in our work,” he says. “We follow stringent protocols and don’t cut corners because this matters. People depend on us. Our first priority is to feed the world.”
Closing the Loop
Bruce Klein is committed to “closing the loop” on his 1,500-acre corn and soy farm in McClean County, Illinois. “We’re doing research on pennycress,” says Bruce, “a native plant and winter annual that can grow in the off-season for corn and soy, and is harvested as a high-quality bio-diesel, aviation-grade fuel.” Better yet, Bruce reports that soybeans planted after the pennycress harvest, in mid-May, do better: “Our yields improve anywhere from one to three bushels of beans per acre.” Best of all, the pennycress bio-diesel is then delivered back to the farm as fuel for the tractors and combines.
How else does Bruce close the loop? In this land where livestock is plentiful, he chuckles, “Well, we made barbecued tofu once. You couldn’t really tell the difference.”
Cathy and Jim Sladek
Four Generations and Counting
Cathy Sladek has lived on the family farm in Iowa for than 35 years, but she says that, in comparison to her fourth-generation farmer husband Jim, she’s still a relative newcomer. “I ask when we’re going to pick everything at harvest,” she laughs, “but the lifers say cut, we’re going to cut the beans and combine the corn.” Jim was born and raised in the house where he and Cathy raised their two children. “We want this business to be around for our infant grandson,” says Cathy.
Jokes Cathy, “We’re going to keep doing this ‘til they literally put us on the compost heap!”
“I remember riding around in the tractor on my mom’s farm when I was five years old,” says Chad Mostaert, whose family has been farming the same ground in Iowa for three generations. Over the years, Chad has witnessed a technological revolution with the emergence of what is known as “precision farming”: the use of global positioning devices (GPS) to track every soybean, from planting through harvest and delivery. “We can tell which varieties of seed do better under what conditions,” says Chad, “improving quality and minimizing waste along the way.” New technology notwithstanding, Chad still enjoys getting out on the farm every morning, riding around on his tractor and surveying the crops.
“Since there are fewer family farmers these days we have to do our best to provide abundant and safe crops while taking good care of our land,” says Chad.
Rolling with the Changes
Dave Mool likes the dynamic nature of farming, especially the changing weather and seasonal variation. “This year, we forecasted little chance of the early frost that damaged last year’s crop, so we planted early,” Dave recounts. “Then, when the drought hit, some of our plants were more mature than they would have been and we suffered some damage. Luckily, the late rains helped salvage the growing season and we expect a better-than-anticipated crop of soybeans.”
“Though it may look repetitive (tend soil, sow seeds, monitor growth, harvest...repeat) we have to be very adaptable to our surroundings. Every day and every year are different,” says Dave. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.