How today's farmers got a head-start on tomorrow's tech

Self-driving vehicles and cloud data? That's old hat for the modern farmer.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
7 min read

Cory Anstey always wanted to be a farmer. It was the joy of riding in the tractor, "the smell of the dirt in the spring" that drew him to the fields.

Anstey, 44, is also a bit of a techie. Luckily for him, modern agriculture lets him embrace both of his passions. Anstey started using GPS technology in his machinery about 15 years ago and now even lets his tractor steer itself across his fields.

"It's very addictive, once you've had it," he tells me while taking a break at the 21st Century Cooperative, a mechanic shop/gas station/grain elevator in Cumberland, Iowa. Known simply as "the Co-op," the dusty office with grimy floors is the most popular hangout in this town of 250 people. It's here where farmers, many clad in overalls and boots, gather to drink pop (soda, for those not in the Midwest), snack on popcorn and gossip -- which includes chatter about the latest machines.

Watch this: Self-driving tractors sow the seeds for high-tech farming

As farmers work more acres with the same -- or even less -- manpower and bigger, more unwieldy machines, they're increasingly turning to technology for help. But it's not the usual tech suspects like Google or Apple inventing a better pitchfork; instead, traditional agriculture machinery manufacturers like John Deere and New Holland keep stepping up their innovation.

Self-driving tractors are commonplace (the farmer still sits behind the wheel). Sensors can detect everything from what the machine's doing to what the crop conditions are. Farmers can monitor the progress of planting and harvesting from their iPads, and tractors serve as their own mobile hotspots. It's a skewed reflection of our own increasingly connected world, except farmers have used many of those technologies, like auto-steering and GPS mapping, since the '90s.

"In a day and age when you get excited about what's happening with autonomous vehicles and folks like Google are making strides, we're proud that agriculture has been using it in food production in the US for going on two decades now," said Matt Darr, an associate professor in Iowa State University's Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering.

It's called precision agriculture. Farmers want to find out -- nearly down to the individual plant -- what's happening with their crops during planting, the application of fertilizer and harvest. They want to know if a certain seed performs better than others or why a part of the field ended up with poor yields. Precision agriculture uses mapping satellites and other technology to let farmers know what's going on down to less than an inch, letting them be more efficient with gas, fertilizer and seeds.

"Unless a farmer got off the tractor and dug in the dirt, he wouldn't know if it was all right," said Lane Arthur, director of information solutions for John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group that develops new apps and data-tracking technology for farmers. "Today he can ride in the [tractor's] cab and see on the iPad that the machine is working the way it's supposed to."

High-tech sensors and maps

It used to take years for farmers to figure out the condition of their land. Today, a farmer doesn't need much institutional knowledge about the field he's working -- his tractor knows all, thanks to GPS mapping. Location tech manages three quarters of the acres farmed in Iowa, Darr said.

Mapping technology talks to sensors in the machines, letting farmers track what's going on at each location, like yield and moisture level. You can see the info on a display built into the tractor, like a big GPS display. The data gets saved in the cloud and can be accessed on computers and tablets. Many farmers even mount iPads in their tractors as second monitors.

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Machinery from John Deere features a yellow globe that acts as the tractor's own guidance system.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"The saying about real estate is location, location, location," said Ron Zink, John Deere's director of onboard applications. "It's the same with precision ag. You need to know exactly where you are."

Planters have auto-shutoff technology that uses GPS to make sure a farmer doesn't accidentally plant an area twice, saving seeds, fuel and time. They can be nearly perfect in spacing seeds apart from each other, compared with only about 60 percent accuracy with planters from 10 years ago, according to Darr.

Farmers can follow their yield in real time as they harvest their fields or go back to the data later. And the machines themselves collect information like the temperature of the engine, the amount of fuel used and the location of that machine, letting farmers repair and maintain equipment.

Look, Ma! No hands!

I stand on the edge of the cornfield, watching for the green, 100-foot-wide sprayer to come over the hill. The driver glances down at a screen by his leg, making sure the 16-ton machine's straddling the rows of crops, not running them over. Even from a distance I can see his hands aren't on the wheel.

I'm visiting the company's test farm in a Des Moines, Iowa, suburb. It's here the company tries out some of its latest high-tech equipment, and I'm getting to ride along during one of these demos.

"Before, you had to sit up here and watch where your crops were at," Marcus Hall, John Deere farm manager, tells me as I join him in the cab of the sprayer, a tractor that's specially built to spread fertilizer, herbicide and other chemicals. He points at a the display, which looks almost like a videogame of a tractor moving through a field. That lets farmers sit back and focus on what they're actually doing in the field -- like spraying fertilizer -- instead of how they're driving.

John Deere's high-tech, self-driving tractors (pictures)

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Sophisticated tech like auto-steering isn't as widely used as mapping technology, but new tractors today include the technology by default, which means more people will start using it. John Deere estimates about two-thirds of large farmers in the US today (which means they have more than 2,500 acres, over five times bigger than the average US farm size) use self-driving technology.

In the past, farmers couldn't operate equipment late at night because they couldn't see the field well. With auto-steering technology, they can work longer hours and in tougher visibility conditions like when it's foggy, windy or dusty. If a farmer veers off track for 1 second at 15 mph, the tractor would destroy nearly 100 corn plants, John Deere said. With this tech, inexperienced farmers can operate nearly as well as veteran workers.

Gary Dinkla, a 51-year-old farmer from Massena, Iowa (population 350), has used auto-steering technology for the past five years. As a result, he can plant at night and work for other farmers on less familiar fields.

"You can plant 20 straight hours, get out of the tractor and be a lot more refreshed," Dinkla said.

John Deere's AutoTrac Vision technology uses cameras on the equipment to detect crops and help steer chemical sprayers down the center of rows. Its AutoTrac RowSense has little yellow paddles connected to the wheel that "lovingly caress" the plants as the sprayer or combine goes by so it doesn't run them over. Its Machine Sync technology lets the combine communicate with a tractor so it can automatically control the vehicle's speed and location, making the unloading of crops into a grain cart easier and more efficient.

So when will tractors operate in fields without drivers? The vehicles can already run by themselves, but it's up to regulators to decide when that will be permitted, said Terry Pickett, manager of advanced engineering for John Deere's ISG and one of the creators of AutoTrac.

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Technology from machine makers like John Deere lets tractors steer themselves through fields.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"The problem you get into with autonomy is all those unexpected things that happen in the field," Pickett said "If you have an autonomous vehicle, you're 10 miles away and it starts a fire in your wheat field, how do you even know it's happened?"

A big data problem

Though current technology has helped farmers be more efficient, it's not perfect. Tractors work as their own mobile hotspots through a modem that sits under the seat, but wireless access still can be spotty in rural areas. And if a farmer doesn't pay for access to more satellites, the GPS could be off by several feet -- something that could ruin a crop. Tech from one tractor provider doesn't always work well with others.

Another drawback is that most farmers can't fix their broken machines themselves. Farmers are some of the earliest "makers," finding unique patches for their machinery that let them finish planting or harvesting without doing major repairs. With the high-tech tractors, only authorized people can fix the machines. That's often costly and eats up precious time.

Chad Schwarte, a 34-year old mechanic and precision farming technician for Lindeman Tractor in Atlantic, spends a good chunk of his time troubleshooting tractor systems for local farmers. The most common problem he sees with technology like GPS and auto-steering is operator error. "They push a button they shouldn't have pushed, or they're not entering the correct information it's calling for," Schwarte said.

Still, when it comes to farming tech, it's years ahead of some other industries. Next up is collecting even more data using sensors, drones and other technology -- and then finding ways to make better use of the information. Technology helps farmers store all this information, but "they're not getting a maximum benefit out of that data they're collecting," ISU's Darr said.

Back at the Cumberland Co-Op, Anstey tells me more about his farming operations -- and what he wants to try next, like a drone to scout his fields to see where he needs to apply more nitrogen. What's sure is he won't be giving up his high-tech tools.

"I wouldn't want to go back to a time I didn't have it," Anstey said.