Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Agronomist . . .?

From March through October, you will find me on the road about two weeks out of every month. For eight months, my travels take me from home, in Western Washington, to four cities in eastern Washington, on to the Willamette Valley of Oregon for nine stops, and then home. After that trip I am home for a week to catch up on business and then off to Idaho for a three to four day visit before returning home and repeating the process. 

After each trip it takes about 1½ to 2 days for me to recover from what I call “stupid head,” a condition where you can only hear road noise or the drone of an airplane propeller.  I’m sure those of you who travel a lot know what “stupid head” is.

This really doesn’t sound like an exciting way to spend your summer, especially if you are a 64-year-old husband, father, and grandfather. But there is a reason and a validation. When I was in college I had a discussion with an advisor about the ag retail business. He told me if you want to be wealthy, don’t go into ag retail. I can honestly say he was right. I have been in this game for 38 years and I’m sure many of my former classmates have acquired much more wealth than I have. But I think I can say I have had more successes than they have. Every place I go, I have helped a farmer or fertilizer dealer become more successful in their business and I am welcomed back for another visit.

Life isn’t all about financial greatness or great self power. When you can educate a dealer who can now pass the information on to his farmers, or help a farmer be more productive and more profitable, you have succeeded in being a real Agronomist.

Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time to pack my suitcase.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Grow for Quality, not Quantity

Modern production agriculture has been striving for increased yield ever since I can remember. Farmers are trying anything that will give them even a slight yield increase. We should take another look at what makes a quality yield instead of a quantity yield.

Everything that can be done to increase early, vigorous root growth increases the quality of the crop. This holds true for grains, fruits, and vegetables. When the root system is dominant, there is more uniform branching and increased flowering. Seed heads on grain are fuller with less shriveled seeds. Fruit has more fruit spurs with better set and more uniform development.

This happens because the roots are the brains of the plant and the purpose of the plant is reproduction. With that in mind why would it not want to put out as many high-quality offspring as possible? The conflict comes in when we try to push for quantity. To do this we increase rates of fertilizer, mostly nitrogen, over water, and basically take the brains of the plant and give them a real hard shake. What we do in excess can totally mess up the plant’s hormonal direction and increase the internal stress level. So the crop we get may have increased in number or volume but internal quality and storability is lacking.

Develop the root system, reduce plant stress and let the plant do its job. You’ll both be happy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Send in the Drones

Imagine yourself driving on a country road in a rural farm community about early June and you stop your car across from a picture perfect field of potatoes. The dark green rows on a brown soil background just takes you back to a safe, secure childhood memory. Then you hear a loud fan sound and a three foot by two foot black helicopter swoops over your car and starts making precise passes over the field. Don’t call the NSA, FAA, or UFO Seekers; it’s just a farmer checking up on the health of his crop. It’s called Drone Field Surveillance and it could be coming to a farm near you.

By using infrared imagery to take pictures of the field, this helicopter can tell a grower if his crop is under stress and where that stress is located long before the plant will look bad. Basically a sick plant puts off a different infrared spectrum color than a healthy plant. This new technology is only new in the method of delivery. Back in the 1980s the same infrared technology was available but it was from satellites far above the earth. The question still remains as it did long ago: Who controls the data and is it cost effective? The only way for a farmer to have complete control is to buy the flying platform, chopper or fixed wing, buy the photography equipment, learn how to work with the FAA and then do it themselves. Then once you have the data, can you really use it? If you have places that are geo-referenced in your field, do you have an applicator that can do site specific applications? So many questions with too few real answers.

I was at a sales meeting this year where the presenter put up a slide of a farmer trying to drink out of a fully pressurized fire hose. He said this is how farmers sometimes feel about data: too much at one time is hard to swallow. I think this is the same with Drone Surveillance Technology. We should learn how to drink in a small amount at first so we don’t choke on the full flow.