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Technology on the farm

Last December Farm Credit Canada (FCC) released the results of a survey about farmers and technology. I wasn’t at all surprised to see the headline: “Producers are keeping up with the times.”

I really have no idea why the stereotypical farmer on TV is a guy wearing patched overalls who looks like he can barely change the station on his AM radio. Most of the farmers I know are tweeting messages on their phones with one hand while they use auto steer to guide their tractors down the field as they plant the latest seed varieties.

FCC survey results

FCC found that 94 per cent of farmers own a laptop or a desktop computer.

A decade ago many farmers couldn’t get access to high-speed Internet. Today there are so many more options for anyone living in a remote location — if all else fails, lots of the new smartphones can act as wi-fi hotspots to provide access for a laptop on the farm. It may not be cheap, but at least there are ways we can connect with the rest of the world.

The FCC survey found that 86 per cent of Canadian farmers have access to high-speed Internet. This seems to stack up pretty fairly as compared to other Canadians. A Statistics Canada report released on October 12, 2011 reported that 80 per cent of Canadians over 15 used the Internet for personal use.

According to the FCC survey, only three per cent of farmers said they have no Internet connection at all.

When it comes to smartphones, 23 per cent of all Canadians own a smartphone; 29 per cent of farmers have a smartphone. And, half of those farmers who don’t currently have one said they expect to get one within the next two years.

As it turns out, farmers under 40 are most likely to be using a smartphone or a cell phone with Internet access (41 per cent); only 26 per cent of farmers over 40 are using smartphones. When it comes to beef producers, only 21 per cent own a smartphone.

It’s no surprise to me that, when it comes to technology, farmers are generally ahead of the game.

There’s an app for that

If you’re one of the 71 per cent of farmers who isn’t using a smartphone, an “app” is an application that you can put on your smartphone. Apps make it easy to do all kinds of things, like convert currencies with the latest exchange rates, follow the stock market, or book a hotel room for your next vacation.

With 41 per cent of farmers under 40 using smartphones already, this is a trend that’s not going anywhere. Developers are coming up with new and better ways for us to use the technology — even on the farm. The machinery section of the February 5 issue of Grainews featured Wireless ART, a new system from Saskatchewan-based Agtron. This system sends data from seeding-rate and blockage sensors on a drill’s seed runs straight to an app on your phone, eliminating the need to add another monitor in the cab. Another Saskatoon company is getting ready to market a sensor that will let farmers monitor grain bins with their smartphones, from anywhere in the world.

Since FCC found that only six per cent of Canadian farmers have an iPad, you might wonder why we’re running an article by Scott Garvey about two iPad apps that would be especially useful to farmers. However, even if you’re in the group of three per cent of farmers with no access to the Internet, you might as well learn to talk the talk. This technology isn’t going away. We’re going to be using computers, tablets and phone to do more and more things in the next few years.

Mapping and precision

Because this is the technology issue, and also because it’s just plain interesting, we’ve kicked off this issue with the optical sensor technology on the cover. Freelancer Jason Casselman has talked with a farmer who’s been using GreenSeeker technology out in the field. This technology picks up information while you’re out spraying, so you can try new methods of variable-rate application and see how your crop is responding to actual field conditions during the growing season.

Jay Peterson has written an article about another mapping and precision technology. Veris technology allows you to map the soil in the your field — useful if you’re trying to diagnose a particular growing problem, or even divide your fields into zones for hands-on soil testing.

And trucks

Some of our truck stories are definitely not in the category of “technology,” so we’ve also got a section on trucks and accessories in this issue of Grainews (page 16). While I have a lot of neighbours that aren’t using auto steer or applying foliar nitrogen with GreenSeeker, I’ve never been to a farm where there wasn’t a truck. I hope you’ll find something interesting in that section, too.

High and low tech

Back in the “old days”, growing up on the farm could be pretty isolating for a Prairie teenager. We could watch CTV or CBC, or listen to Swift Current radio (AM came in better) while we waited for magazines to come in the mail — keeping up with the latest trends required a pretty strong commitment.

Most of today’s rural teenagers have access to at least as many TV and radio stations as city kids, or any teenagers anywhere in the world. And the Internet brings a whole new dimension of information. No more waiting for the mail truck.

But every once in a while, I notice how we casually mix new technology with old-style practices, and I wonder if my city friends might think I’m living in a pioneer history book.

Last month I was outside in a field a couple of miles from our house, reading emails on my smartphone while I “spotted” my husband. Brad was out with an ice auger, drilling a hole in the dugout so he could fill up the tank on the back of the truck and haul enough water to the house to keep us supplied for cooking and bathing for the rest of the winter. I didn’t want him out there alone, in case he fell through the ice and needed help.

Later that afternoon, in a different field, Brad sat down on the tailgate of his truck and took a cell phone call from a grain buyer while I skated off on a slough with our five-year old son (don’t worry — it’s a shallow slough, with a very smooth surface, and we’d found the ice on the dugout to be much thicker than we’d imagined).

That week, while the local recreation board was using the Internet to advertise the upcoming bonspiel, our farm neighbour was reading the latest online weather forecast to see how often he could hook up the hose at the rec centre and flood the natural-ice rink, to get the two sheets of ice ready for the weekend.

I cook using recipes downloaded onto my iPad over the wi-fi that runs through our house, but I also keep a 30-day supply of canned goods in the basement, in case the weather stops us from getting to town.

Even here at Grainews, we sometimes work with an eclectic mix of old and new technology. When he’s putting together his annual moisture map for Western Canada, Grainews columnist Les Henry finds that the only way to co-ordinate different moisture data from the three Prairie provinces is to make the map himself. So he sits down with pencil crayons, drawing lines and colouring in between them. When he’s finished, Les scans his map and sends it to our production department in Winnipeg. There, Steve Coté works some kind of high-tech magic, and soon the map looks just as you see it on page 24 — like it was created in a space-age NASA lab.

People in agriculture tend to be up to date when it comes to new technology, but also not afraid to resort to good old-fashioned self-reliance. This mixing of the two grounds us to the reality of our jobs and the importance of our families and communities, while still keeping us connected to the future.


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