There are words and phrases I hear thrown around “big ag” and one of them is that we just “spew” chemical (fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide) on to our crops without rhyme or reason.
To put it bluntly: WRONG.
There are many reasons why this assumption is wrong: everything from cost to federally mandated application rates. My brother-in-law, Ray, does custom spraying for farmers around our area. Do you know what else he has to have? A commercial license to do that. He initially received his applicator license during his long ago college years (sorry Ray, you are kind of old now-almost 30!) and must continue to renew his license every year through testing and workshops. There are laws in place set forth through a collaboration of many entities (EPA, USDA, DNR, etc.) that govern how, when, what, and where you can apply any kind of chemical, even manure! Even Golf Clubs have to have this type of schooling and license!
Here at Hewitt Farms, we are big on precision ag in our planting, harvesting, field and crop health. Why does precision ag and technology matter to you? Why should you support it? Take a look at the photo below.
Does it look like a bunch of pretty colors to you? Well, a farmer will tell you that that is a field map, constructed by various technologies in our equipment including GPS, moisture sensors, flow monitors, and more. All part of the big “precision ag” picture! In fact it tells us everything from how long it took for us to harvest that field, our average yields, moisture content, and more! Take a look below.
I know-crazy right? Did I mention this is all real time data? Meaning it shows up as we go! We can actually take this data (we store it on SD cards) and transfer it from computer to computer (which helps when We have 2 office computers, Mark’s laptop, Ray’s laptop, my laptop and Poppa Kevin’s laptop-whew!) but also from combine to tractor to sprayer. All of this technology helps us ensure our soil health and crop health. It allows us to be better stewards of the land and use less chemicals of any kind, and when we do use them, we are extremely precise when we do apply them.
Now what does this have to do with chemical application? During the spring we do soil sampling to make sure we are giving our crop the best possible chance we can to grow. You might call it nurturing our babies. When we do this, we work with a crop specialist and a company that specializes in fertilizer (hey there vitamins for the soil!), pesticides (aphids=no bueno), fungicides (not the mushroom kind-think rot) and herbicides (thistle isn’t fun for crops or poking in your feet-ouch!). We look at these maps that we generate during harvest for issues that we see in our soil. Do you see those red spots in the field? That means we did not get a good crop from those areas. These are the first areas we look at in terms of what our crop and soil might need. We will often sample these areas so we know exactly what kind of fertilizer to apply. For instance, if our field isn’t nitrogen deficient, we aren’t applying anhydrous. That doesn’t make sense.
Now going forward, because these maps transfer in all of our equipment, we use this to target specific areas while out spraying. For instance, check out those maroon spots above. Maybe we had some weed issues out there that we noticed while harvesting. It could be anything from wild mustard to turnip weeds (not the same kinds you eat!). We use another form of GPS technology on our farm when walking fields to plot where we see a weed and name that specific weed to help us target what kind of herbicide we might want to spray to be effective. Now, back to Ray’s job. If I get caught up with having two screens in our combine, he has at least four in the sprayer. These screens monitor everything from wind to the amount of pressure exerted! The amount of technology involved is crazy. Why? Because we only apply the exact amount we need, when we need it and where we need it. For instance (again using those maps I showed you) we may spray more herbicide on the red spots, but none or hardly any at all on the “well performing” areas. Crops can get fungus on them, much like your toes can. Eww. I apologize for that picture in your mind. We have to do something about that, just like you might go to the doctor or pick up some Lotrimin anti-fungal spray from the drugstore. We only use fungicides when a fungus is present. Again, the fungicide has to be specific to the fungus it is treating. Fungus spreads (you know you have it on more than one toe) so we treat the whole field, just like you treat all your toes…and shoes.
Still with me? Pesticides. Bugs can do some real damage to crops. Luckily with some of the biotech crops such as BT-corn, we don’t have to use pesticides because they have developed a seed that allows a gene that the bugs (corn borer-nasty little dude!) don’t like to be present only when the plant is green (growing stages) and only in the leaves and stalk when the bug eats it. A normal pesticide could be sprayed if there was corn borer infestation, but their name “borer” gives you a glimpse into what they do-bore into the corn stalk, so often a pesticide can’t reach them. Biotechnology like this helps reduce our pesticide use tremendously. In fact, we don’t typically spray pesticide at all now! We do field checks for another nasty critter-aphids. Aphids can destroy a crop pretty quickly, so we make sure to take care of that. If you see a helicopter or crop duster going over fields in Mid-July or later, that is often because of something like an aphid infestation and you can no longer use a sprayer like ours, because the crop is too tall. A pesticide has to be used for the pest that you have present in order for it to be worth placing on your field. This is why if we do have a problem, we will work with where we get our pesticide from to determine what pest we have and what our options are.
Now that you know a little more about how we use chemicals and why technology and precision ag is such an important part of it (everything from rate monitors to phone apps) I want to leave you with a few thoughts.
- The Government, more specifically the EPA, has federal limits in place for how much chemical we can come in contact with without it being a health risk. This is for both organic and conventional agriculture, as both use pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. That means that what you are exposed to at any point in time (spraying the weeds in your sidewalk or eating an apple from the organic orchard) they have to adhere to limits of exposure and specific directions. Go check out their website for all the laws, rulings, and protections on it!
- Prices. This stuff is EXPENSIVE. Just ask Jenny Rohrich who does billing for her husband’s company Maverick Ag, an agronomy center in North Dakota. The bills for any chemical (Yeap, manure isn’t cheap-liquid gold as we say), can run in the tens of thousands. We can’t apply more than what we need, or what we don’t need, when we don’t need it simply because we cannot afford to. I’ve cried a few times getting the bills…
- Technology. Here’s the thing,technology is not stagnant. So let’s not be afraid of it. Something might work for a year, then we improve upon it and come up with something even better! I think of precision ag that way. Farmers are using it to be better farmers and better stewards of the land. We’ve come a long ways in a few short years, and I’m excited to see where it goes next! We can do a lot with a little, and be more precise than ever before with what we do. Literally, everything from seed depth to droplet size to row width.
That is basically the short explanation (yes short) of why we don’t do what some think we do when it comes to chemicals. Frankly, I think part of the “ish” factor is just the word chemicals after all it doesn’t sound very nice, now does it? Here’s my recommendation for you. Next time someone brings it up think of it this way: Crop Protectant. We do everything we can to protect our crop, much like you protect your kids-think bike helmet, knee pads and elbow pads. Fertilizer, Pesticide, Herbicides and Fungicides are the helmets, elbow pads and knee pads of the crop world.