The Planted Row: What will the future hold for your farm?

by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

Inside this week’s Farm Forum you will find our 2017 Equipment Preview. This special section kicks off with a story by Connie Sieh Groop, freelance ag journalist (and former editor of the Farm Forum), about a South Dakota farmer who saw a big increase in yields after converting his planter to a multi-hybrid planter last year. You should take a few moments to find and read the story. (Online readers can find it here.)

You should also take a moment to think about the future. Some of you can remember how different farming was just 20 years ago from the way it is conducted now. Now imagine how different farming will be 20 years in the future.

I’m going to make a prediction. Twenty years from now, I think the autonomous tractors that have been developed and prototyped by several equipment manufacturers will be widespread. You’ll be able to leave them in the field working around the clock.

If my prediction is true, what will a farmer actually do in that kind of future? Someone will be needed to drive the autonomous machines from field to field, of course. Someone will probably be needed to drive truckloads of grain to the elevator or grain bins at harvest, but I think both the combine and the grain cart will be automated.

How much physical labor will actually be required on the part of a farmer? I think the primary roles of the farmer will be: financial risk taker and decider. A farmer will make decisions and then will pay other people to carry out those decisions. Can you make your tractor communicate with a satellite if it doesn’t want to? Probably not. You’ll need a specialist for that. Will you be deciding what chemicals to spray on your crop? Probably not. You’ll pay an agronomist to make a recommendation, and you’ll sign a check for someone else to treat your crop. You might even pay a marketing specialist or employ marketing software to tell you when to sell your crop.

I think most farmers will use multi-hybrid planters, and I think the plant genetics will be greatly improved from today’s hybrids. The yield per acre will, no doubt, increase. As the same thing happens in countries like Argentina, Brazil and China, the value of your crop will probably reflect the increased global production. Do you think your farm will be able to survive that financial environment with its current number of acres? Unlikely. You’ll either need to grow your acreage, find a new business model, or you’ll need to get out of the business. How many of your farming friends will be attending the crop meetings with you 20 years from now?

Given the decreased amount of human labor required by the farm, how much financial sense will it make to bring a nephew or son-in-law into the business? How many of your own children can the farm afford for you to bring into the business? How many farm kids will be moving to cities to support their necessarily non-farm careers?

While your farm will employ a certain number of agronomists, precision farming specialists, and equipment technicians, how many small rural towns will be able to survive this new farming landscape? Will the town of 150-500 people your family currently relies on still exist 20 years from now? How far will your grandchildren have to travel just to get to school? How far will you have to travel to get the food, supplies, and parts that you need?

Successful companies often base their decisions on what will be happening in the future. When you look into the future rural landscape, what do you see? What decisions can you make now that will help your farm survive that landscape?