Today’s farmers aren’t pitchfork-carrying men in overalls — they have technology to boost the yield of crops and streamline the amount of work they must do every day.
“Crop and soil scientists are still important, but we need software engineers,” said Joe Kelpinski, Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) manager. MAEAP is a voluntary program for reducing farm pollution, with support from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD).
Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are used to fertilize and maintain crops. But excess nutrients not absorbed by soil or plants are often washed away after rain or snowfall, and flow into lakes and rivers where they can harm aquatic life and affect drinking water supplies. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has had regulations in place to limit pollution for decades, but it’s technology that’s helping to keep chemical levels in check now.
Tractors have computerized monitors that can tell that nutrient levels are in small sections of soil, as little as just an acre or two. The monitors allow growers to be much more precise in how much fertilizer is spread on an area of land — factors, like the quality of the soil and the amount of water it receives, mean that some parts of a farmer’s field don’t need as much as other parts. That reduces the amount of excess that’s washed away. It’s also a cost-saving measure for the farmer, who no longer must blanket an entire field with the same amount of fertilizer.
While the monitors are keeping track of what’s being planted and the chemicals being applied to seeds, the farmer is busy keeping track of the fields themselves. Kelpinski said thanks to GPS systems and automatic steering built into tractors and other farm vehicles, there’s less of a need for a farmer to concentrate on the relatively simple task of driving the tractor.
Drones loaded with sensors of their own are also hovering over farm fields. They’re bigger and more rugged than the toys available on store shelves. Drones can look outside the spectrum of light the human eye can see and scan a field for hazards like harmful insects, plant diseases and the ever-elusive balance of nutrients. Analysts expect the industry to grow steadily over the next decade, with the worldwide market expanding to $1 billion by 2024, according to researchers, Global Market Insights.
While drones and self-driving tractors are coming to Michigan farms now, the state is already leading the way on dozens of crops. MDARD estimates that farmers across the state produce more than 300 types of produce, from the apples, cherries and berries the state is known for to hops and chestnuts. It ranks first in the nation for blueberries, tart cherries, Niagara grapes and several kinds of dry beans and cut flowers.
As of 2017, the industry is estimated to contribute more than $100 billion to the state’s economy annually, though this includes not just farmers but food manufacturers, like dairies across the state processing milk and butter, and the breakfast cereal companies in Battle Creek and elsewhere.
There are more than 50,000 farms in the state, and they operate nearly 10 million acres of land according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A census of farmers is completed by the USDA about every five years, with the last assessment completed in 2012. There are some 920,000 workers in the agriculture and food industry in the state, or about 22 percent of the entire workforce.
Michigan farmers (“principal operators” in the language of the census) are about 86 percent male, and 99 percent are white. Perhaps most significant, though, is the average age of a farmer being 57.6 years old, up from 56.3 years old in the 2007 census.
That data may make the Michigan farm workforce look “grayer” than it really is, since it only looks at the primary operator of the farm, not other, likely younger family members, who may be helping grow crops and operate the high-tech equipment. Organizations in the state are working to combat the issue.
Michigan State University and land conservancies in six counties of the Traverse City region offer Farmer to Farmer (f2fmi.com), a website intended to connect landowners with prospective buyers. There’s a 43-acre vineyard available for $550,000, and properties of less than 5 acres where the price is negotiable. By comparison, the median lot size for a single-family home in Michigan is about .24 acres, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The USDA is also encouraging young farmers with a comprehensive learning tool online, newfarmers.usda.gov, with advice on everything from business plans to tax guidance.
No matter how much experience a farmer has, or what tools he or she is using, every year’s crops are vulnerable to external conditions like weather and commodity pricing, or how much investors are willing to pay for staples like corn and coffee.
“If you and I have a farm, our wheat isn’t really any different, so we’re affected by price the same,” Kelpinski said. He cited corn as an example, which fell from a high of $7 a bushel in 2008 to 2010 to about $3 per bushel currently, thanks to higher global production and lower anticipated demand. And though the price of corn changes, the expenses for raising the crop don’t vary as often, resulting in slimmer profits for farmers.
“We have to feed 9 billion people on less and less land,” Kelpinski said. “It’s nothing like it was even 10 years ago.”