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Farms Look to Mechanization

When you think of a typical farm, you might picture workers hunched over in the fields, toiling away in the sun -- just as they would have centuries ago. But the fact is that technology is changing the way we farm. More farms are turning to mechanization.

What does this mean? Harvesting crops (doing things like picking grapes) can be done mechanically. In the cattle barns, dairy cows are milked mechanically. And farms have mechanized processes such as those involved in collecting eggs.

"Making the choice to go to mechanization is an ongoing thing," says Ron Bonnett. He is president of an agriculture federation.

"As new technology becomes available, farmers have a tendency to fine-tune their management practices to utilize that new technology."

It's important to realize that even though more farms are using more mechanization on their fields, that doesn't necessarily mean that there is going to be less work available for farmers, according to Bonnett. People still need to operate the machines.

"There's going to be different job openings," he says, "especially when you move to mechanization, there's less of the hands-on labor type jobs, but there's lots of jobs for operators, mechanics, technicians."

As the role of technology grows, so does the diversity of farming practices. While, in general, larger farms are relying more on mechanization, another booming sector of farming is smaller niche markets, says Bonnett.

"There is a split taking place where you're either moving into one of these larger farms where they have fairly sophisticated operations using computer technology, or you're moving into some of the niche marketing opportunities."

He says the niche farms need workers with skills like marketing, being able to relate to customers, and being able to know how to fine-tune production to meet some of the local market demands.

Bonnett says there's optimism in the farming industry right now as there are opportunities in both larger farms and smaller farms.

An example of a popular rising niche market right now is organic farming. Elmarie Roberts works at an organic farm. For her, the increasing use of mechanization is not an issue. In fact, using machines is not an issue at all!

"My experience on a small-scale certified organic farm is that two people can survive comfortably, and very happily, on one acre without machinery apart from a small tractor and a hand driven roto-tiller," she says.

Roberts agrees that niche markets such as the one she operates in are gaining popularity.

"Especially the certified organic sector and the collaborative, co-operative community farm model is growing," she says.

Back on the larger farms, knowing how to operate the more technologically advanced machinery is a plus. With everything from GPS technology to technology that controls variable rate application of fertilizer and herbicides, there are new, higher-tech jobs opening up in farming.

"That opens up a whole series of jobs for people who want to go into that," says Bonnett. "Some of the equipment that is being used now is sophisticated equipment based on computer technology, which is a whole different skill set than somebody working on the end of a shovel."

Utilizing machinery is also a way for farms to keep being profitable. Costs for farms are constantly rising and new technology can make farms more productive. But, according to Bonnett, the choice to use more technology depends on where the farm is located and what their market is.

"If you're living near a fairly large center, sometimes there's tremendous opportunity to go after those niche markets," he says. "If you're further away, that's likely not as big an advantage. I think each farm has to take a look at what their assets are in relationship to the landbase they have, and their available labor force, and really take a look at a business plan that maximizes the return on those assets."

Those who have been in the farming industry for a long time are constantly adapting to new developments. The increasing mechanization over recent years is just the latest example of this.

Hans McPherson is 58 years old and is the owner of a farm in Montana. He's seen a lot of change in his life on the farm.

"I grew up on a dairy farm," says McPherson. "We dairied for all my dad's life, practically. We don't have dairy cows anymore, but I went over to a friend's place here who has a dairy and I was looking at their dairy equipment, and I wouldn't even begin to know how to run it anymore."

McPherson says that the dairy equipment he was looking at was all computerized, right down to details which he never would have imagined years ago.

"The computer measures the milk as it comes out of the cow, and can tell you right to the ounce how much milk the cow's giving every milking," he says. "If you treat that cow for any reason, the computer won't even allow you to put the milker on her until you switch it so the milk is the saved milk instead of going into the tank. The technology and the advancements in agriculture are pretty astounding."

McPherson agrees that although there may be a reduced need for physical labor on farms, there's still a need for people to work the machinery. But when it comes to the decision to invest in machinery to increase profits for farms, McPherson reminds us that it all comes down to what makes sense for each farm. And fewer people entering the farming industry can work to the advantage of the farmers that remain.

"We have to have a scale of economics," says McPherson. "In order to afford the more technological stuff and the more expensive equipment that works better, I have to farm more acres. But it's okay because there are fewer people wanting to farm those acres, too."

With new technology, there are fun perks to some classic traits of the farmer's life. McPherson says that because some of the newer machines are more reliable, he can actually keep some kind of planned schedule.

"I can tell my wife exactly when I'm going to be back and I'm done!" he says. "And I don't come home all greasy."


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