New Forms of Farm Advice, from High-Tech to Human

Farm Advice

Innovative farmers now have a wealth of sources for advice. Chatting with friends down at the local café no longer cuts it.

Back in the day, deciding what and how to farm was pretty straightforward. You learned what the consultants now call “best practices” at your father’s knee. As you got older, you’d supplement that advice by listening to other farmers down at the local café, and perhaps to seed and crop-protection distributors you’d been working with for years.

That’s all changed—at least for farmers in developed countries. Now there’s a wealth of information available to farmers from a host of new sources—so much that the trick is to figure out how to sort through it all.

Case in point: Curtis Sayles farms 6,000 acres in Seibert, Colorado, where he grows winter wheat, corn, sunflowers, and millet. His embrace of the latest in agronomic advice, from every source he can get his hands on, shows just how much innovative guidance on how to farm is out there—and why it isn’t always so easy to follow.

Too much information?

A fourth-generation farmer, Sayles learned much of what he knows about farming from his father. Now Sayles supplements his dad’s approach by consulting GPS soil maps, satellite moisture analysis and pest tracking, and combine-based field surveillance systems, all of which feed data into his variable-rate applicators for irrigation, fertilizers, and crop protection.

That’s a lot of data to digest. Sayles absorbs it all in the solitude of his self-steering combine, synthesizing the massive amounts of agronomic data flashing across his multiple computer screens. “When you travel a mile or a mile and a half per row, at about five miles an hour,” Sayles says, “there’s plenty of time to think.”

Farm Advice
Farm Advice
“When you travel a mile or a mile and a half per row, at about five miles an hour, there’s plenty of time to think.” —Curtis Sayles, Colorado farmer

Extending a hand

Ron Meyer, an agent for the Colorado State University extension service, based in Burlington, Colorado, is awash in that rising tide of information as well. He sees farmers sorting through it every day in high-tech ways, and also in very human ways. “I watch guys slowing their pickups as they drive by their neighbors’ fields,” he says, “or talking to each other at church. They’re asking, ‘What’s working?’ and ‘What are you going to try next year?’” It should come as no surprise that they’re also doing it in the Reddit agricultural science community and via Twitter.

Meyer has been gathering and disseminating this kind of information among the dryland farmers in his region for three decades. But he no longer has a monopoly on that process. The big agricultural firms once collaborated primarily with agricultural research institutions like Colorado State to develop new farming practices, then relied on Meyer and others to spread the word. Now many companies do it on their own: “The local sales reps have taken over a lot of that,” Meyer says. “A good one will tell a farmer, ‘I tested that on a field ten miles from here, and here’s the data.’” There’s never a shortage of advice on any question a farmer might have.

Fresh fields

Sayles is an active proponent of no-till farming and the use of cover crops to protect the vulnerable soil of eastern Colorado, which averages just 18 inches of rainfall a year. “I’ve been doing continuous - crop no-till since 1997,” says Sayles. “I sold my tillage equipment back then so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back to it.”

That’s been a tough row to hoe in an area where most farmers prefer to stick to the old ways. When he made the switch, he notes, “I’m sure the coffee shop in town was abuzz.” If you’re picturing a bunch of old guys straddling their stools and clucking over the newfangled methods, you’re on the money. “I don’t even go in there anymore,” says Sayles. “It’s like high school: peer pressure not to change. But adult peer pressure is even more powerful.”

At age 63, Sayles is no kid, yet he continues to seek out new ideas. He has a history of doing so. He quit the farm after high school to earn a degree in ocean engineering, of all things, and worked in the oil industry. Then his dad asked him for help on the farm. “I left agriculture and came back,” he says. “It expanded my mind. I wasn’t falling in line with everybody else.” He admits, however, that it’s “kinda lonely. I can’t talk across the fence with my neighbor about what I’m doing.”

Ultimately, it comes down to Sayles’s gut instincts about what will work in his corner of the universe. And while he appreciates what the extension service and the agricultural-input companies offer, he has an appetite for multiple sources of innovation in agriculture. “Every morning I’m on my iPad sorting through daily research blurbs, weekly newsletters, and emails about cover-crop strategies, and the ten guys comparing notes on some farmer’s blog,” he says. “Then I’m on my combine, sorting it out. Why is my yield down here? What are the advantages of flax versus buckwheat as a cover crop? What did I do wrong? What went right, and why?”

The many new inputs and sources of advice Sayles now gathers together have been hugely helpful in running his farm—and keeping it profitable. But in the end, it’s up to him to sort through it all, and put it to good use. “I don’t pay an agronomist,” says Sayles. “I’m my own agronomist.”