Future of Farming on Display at 'Big Iron' Show

Farming technology is big business. The latest developments — smarter seed planters, bigger combines, advances in animal breeding — are on display at Big Iron, a major agricultural trade show in Fargo, N.D.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When you think of fast moving, high-tech industries, you naturally think of farming. Well, maybe not, but NPR's Adam Davidson does, and he has reason to.

He's back from Big Iron, a farm exposition in Fargo, North Dakota. And he found that agricultural technology is moving forward quickly.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Big Iron is an agriculture fair, but it doesn't have pony rides and carneys hawking games of chance. Big Iron is not for idle fun. It is all business.

For three days in mid-September every year, Big Iron takes over a huge fairgrounds in Fargo so that farmers from the upper Midwest can see the latest in farm technology, like the GreenStar 2 that steers a tractor for you.

Kyle Collins, a John Deere salesman, told me how it works.

Mr. KYLE COLLINS (Salesman, John Deere): You can let go of the wheel. It's going to take over the steering, and you'll see the tires on the tractor just moving back and forth, keeping you on that line.

DAVIDSON: GPS auto steer devices have been around for a few years, but Collins is showing off the latest model.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, the biggest difference is the screen is a lot larger. It's color, and it's touch screen.

DAVIDSON: The new version doesn't just steer. It takes control of the whole tractor. So as you cross from say a wheat field into alfalfa, the system automatically shifts fertilizer spray nozzles, or adjusts a crop-cutting combine. What used to take hours of manual labor is now done in seconds and on the fly. The farmer can just sit in the tractor cab and read a book.

Collins says we're just a few years away from the next big breakthrough: fully automatic tractors that plant and fertilize and pick crops without a farmer anywhere in sight.

Another reason farmers love this exhibition is they can learn about the latest in seeds. Allen St. Mitchell(ph) is a salesman with Cropland Genetics.

Mr. ALLEN ST. MITCHELL (Salesman, Cropland Genetics): In soybeans, we've got an RTO 669 that's absolutely blowing the doors off everything, you know.

DAVIDSON: RTO 669 is a brand new strain of soybean seed that is so popular, it's completely sold out.

Mr. ST. MITCHELL: It's a very attractive looking bean, and it's a yielder -awfully good yielder. High yield puts money in their pocket, and that's what the farmers want to do.

DAVIDSON: Every year, St. Mitchell says, Cropland Genetics tests around 800 new strains of seeds. These are new hybrids, or genetically modified seeds cooked up in a lab. And Cropland is just one of dozens of seed companies at Big Iron.

And that's not all. There are new machines, like smarter seed planters and bigger combines. There's the latest yield management software and new paint polymers to spray on storage containers. There are even animal breeders, touting cows bred for better tasting meat or horses bred to be calmer. There's so much innovation in farming, it's no wonder that some technologies take awhile to adopt.

Take farm-based wireless networks, one of the latest innovations.

Mr. JOHN NOWASKI(ph) (Farm Technology Researcher, North Dakota State University): We probably have maybe 5 percent or less of the farmers in this area that use this. But I think if you come back a year from now, it'll be more.

DAVIDSON: John Nowaski researches farm technology at North Dakota State University. He's got a big display at Big Iron, showing how farmers can set up a wireless network, complete with automatic cameras and thermometers and gate openers. Nowaski says new farming innovations like this one often come from a university researcher like himself, or from an innovative farmer tinkering around.

Early adopters copy these inventors. The new technology starts spreading.

Mr. NOWASKI: And then as 5 or 10 percent of the farmers do this, commercial companies recognize there's an opportunity to make some money here. And then they'll move into it.

DAVIDSON: Unlike, say, iPods or high-end cars, farm technology is not designed to be glitzy. Farmers are tough customers, and they only buy things that actually pay for themselves. And overall, technology has really paid off.

At least for the farmers who are still in business. And that's another reason farming technology is different from an iPod. It's not optional. Once your neighbors start using something new and become more productive, more efficient, you have to get it too or else you won't be competitive and you'll probably lose your farm.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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