By Molly Drimmel, CommonGround Kansas farmer volunteer
Molly’s full-time job is a field agronomist. In this role, she helps farmers raise healthy crops. Her husband, David, joined her family’s farm near Wakarusa, Kan., in 2013. Together, they grow corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, sorghum, chicken, beef cattle, pigs and goats.
These days, it seems like everyone is being asked to do more with less — fewer hours in the day, smaller budgets and less resources. Farming is no different. Today, producers are being tasked with increasing their yields while reducing their costs. To accomplish this goal, farmers must make every acre of ground more efficient as resources become more scarce. And, we’ve done it.
Year after year, our land yields more per acre. We’re feeding the world with fewer people, less land and reduced inputs. I’ve had a unique vantage point to see this change firsthand. I’m a researcher and have helped bring new technology to the market. In my job, I talk to farmers to understand what they are experiencing in their own fields. Plus, I work on my own family’s farm, and I’ve seen our technology change rapidly in my lifetime.
Improved seed technology is one important way farmers have been able to produce more crops with the same amount of ground. I’ve headed up a corn research station in Western Kansas and a soybean research station in Eastern Kansas.
Across Kansas alone, there is a vast difference in growing conditions. At the research stations, we are able to experiment with the latest corn and soybean hybrids. Our focus is finding the perfect seed that could grow quickly, produce good yields, use less water and have good tolerance to important diseases. These benefits translate into reduced use of natural resources. Plus, it gives farmers greater flexibility in planting crops, which helps provide a reliable supply.
As a researcher, I’m part of thousands of years of history. That’s about how long humans have been genetically modifying plants. Until recent scientific advances, this process was done by choosing plants with the desirable traits and cultivating those particular plants. Today, scientists can expedite this process by selecting a desired trait right in the DNA of the plant — that’s a GMO, or a genetically modified organism.
In my lifetime, GMOs have provided hybrids that significantly increased crop yields, all while using less water and chemicals. That’s efficient for farmers, but it’s also good for our environment and meets consumer demand.
One key to doing more with less is to work smarter not just harder. In my opinion, farmers have always been pretty smart. They know what their ground is capable of. The average age of today’s farmer is about 58 years old. In five decades, they have seen a lifetime of successful and unsuccessful crop years. Now, a younger generation of farmers are coming in with a formal education from universities and experience with advanced farming technology. For example, I have added to our family farm by getting my master’s degree in agronomy, which is the science of how plants grow.
Farmers are using education and experience to tackle some tough problems. One of the most pressing concerns in our state is water availability. Even just 10 years ago, we used a lot more water to grow one crop.
Today, we’ve reduced that amount using better seed technology combined with advanced equipment technology. We can turn off irrigation systems and monitor water use from our phones. Plus, we know a lot more about the plant itself. A little stress can actually help encourage the plant to grow, digging its roots deeper and producing more yield. Figuring out what growth stage of the plant needs the water the most has helped us increase yields with minimal water use.
We also know more about weed control. Many farmers I work with choose to use a herbicide before the crop is planted to help reduce competition from weeds right away. We can also responsibly apply the chemical exactly where it’s needed using global positioning system, or GPS, technology that’s commonplace in tractors these days. A product may not go all over a whole field. It can be applied in targeted areas to reduce chemical use and cost to the farmer.
A farmer can soil sample his field then layer input maps such as fertilizer, chemical and insecticides over yield maps and target specific areas. By identifying high and low producing areas, they can then write prescriptions for a field allowing them to use less inputs. This can reduce cost for the farmer and produce more with less — leading to a better environment.
These new technologies come with a greater investment on the part of the farmer. We must invest our money, but we also must invest our time into learning new tools as they arrive. It can be intimidating for older generation farmers, but most folks I know are more than up to the challenge. When my dad started farming, he would find a tree in the horizon and plant straight to it. His row was not always the straightest. In the last few years, my husband has set up autosteer where the GPS plants in a straight line, and he does not even touch the steering wheel until he gets to the end of the row. His rows are perfectly straight. The same GPS can then be used to apply herbicide and fertilizer to get precision placement and efficiency.
My husband and I returned to my family farm in 2013, and it’s been a struggle to grow our operation considering the large amount of money it can take to purchase more acres of land or a new tractor with the latest GPS technology. We don’t go on vacation much, but we’re finding our family moments in what we’re building together. We love the land, our livestock and working together as a family.