This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Dine and Discuss

On Thursday afternoon the Culp family invited a number of community leaders and a few bloggers to a Dine and Discuss event on their family farm. As I walked from my car to the reception area, I passed by a combine with a price tag in the window. The point of the price tag, I think, was to point out that farming is a high-tech, capital-intensive enterprise. Many people who do not come in contact with farms and farmers have an outdated view of farms, a view that reflects farm life many decades ago when their ancestors may still have farmed.
 There was a reception tent with crackers and cheese and wine from Carpenter Creek Cellars. People mingled and networked. I recognized a lot of people who I have seen at various county and city government meetings. Then it was time to get started with the main menu. The attendees were divided into three groups by the color of their nametags, and they were invited to view three presentations about different aspects of modern farming. My first station was the technology exhibit.
 Here we heard about autosteering, the ability of modern farm equipment to drive without a human at the steering wheel. One of the advantages of this technology is that a farmer can program all the farm equipment to take exactly the same path in the field, minimizing the amount of soil that is compacted. (Compacted soil is not good for crop growth.) There was a brief discussion of soil sampling, which allows the farmer to see exactly where in the field fertilizers need to be applied and in what amounts. Related to this, modern combines produce yield data as they combine so the farmer can see not just what the field as a whole yields, but can map out within the field how the yield varies. Areas of the field that have low yields can then be examined to discover why they did not perform well and remedies can be applied.

The presenter then turned to scouting, which can be done with individuals walking the fields and observing where there are problems. However, there is a new, high-tech way to do this using a remote-sensing vehicle or quadcopter (or drone--a name which may have bad connotations). This was without a doubt the highlight of this and perhaps all the demonstrations.
 The quadcopter can be remotely controlled or it can have a preset path programmed into it. If remotely controlled, it should have a home set so that if contact is lost it will come back. It should also have a beacon that broadcasts GPS coordinates so that if it unexpectedly lands in the middle of a corn field, it can be found. The vehicle has a camera attached and what it can detect depends on what camera and the software that analyses the images can detect. The model demonstrated cost about $4500, but that is less than what more primitive models cost just a few years ago.
Our fifteen minutes were up and it was off to the livestock exhibit area. The Culp farms raise pigs and beef cattle. They no longer breed their own pigs but buy the young pigs when they are seventeen days old from a farrowing operation. (The Pig Adventures at Fair Oaks Farms is a farrowing operation.) They raise the pigs for about five months and then the pigs go to market to become pork chops, bacon, and other delicious meats. The price that the pig brings depends on the quality of the meat, so proper genetics and proper care matter a great deal.

We learned that pigs like their food ground up finely but cattle digest rough food better than finely-ground food. Plus cow stomaches are designed to handle cellulose, while those of pigs are much more like ours, which cannot digest cellulose.

The Culp farms have about 200 head of cattle. The cows are brought into heat for the Memorial Day weekend, when they are artificially inseminated. Some that do not seem to have good genetics have embryos implanted and become surrogate mothers (if the implant takes). The presenter for this station was Dr. Kenneth Culp III who resides in Kentucky and teaches at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
 The last station was about corn and soybeans, the two major crops of Jasper County farmers. (Jasper County is the number one county in the state in terms of total agricultural sales, with White County second.) The break-even point for a farmer growing corn is a price of about $3.60 per bushel, which is a bit higher right now than the market price. Although the yields may be very good this year, it may be a bad year for farmers. (Any good economist would tell you that that is because the demand curve for corn and other farm products is inelastic.) One of the presenters was from the IBEC, the ethanol producer at Pleasant Ridge. He said their plant uses 17.5 million bushels of corn a year. The starch in the corn is turned to alcohol, and everything that is left over is turned into DDG, dried distillers grain. It is mixed with other ingredients to produce livestock feed.

There was some discussion of GMO crops, another area in which technology has altered agriculture. GMO is the acronym of genetically modified organism. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of agriculture by preserving some traits and discarding others and by selective breeding. However, in recent years scientists have found ways to directly manipulate genes by inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another. It is only these organisms that are considered GMO. Round-up ready corn and soybeans were produced in this way. There are some in the US who are convinced that anything GMO is bad, though this view seems more common in Europe. About 90% of the corn grown in the US is GMO. The presenters pointed out that GMO crops reduce the need for cultivation, herbicides, and pesticides.
 Then it was time to dine on food products produced in Jasper County: pork, sweet corn, green beans, melons, and homemade blueberry pie.
After dinner, Kendell Culp gave some closing remarks. He remarked at how important science is to modern agriculture, reinforcing a message that was clear from the three earlier presentations. He also commented on how rapidly agriculture was changing. Farmers today are doing almost everything in different ways than they were done in the past. For example, the pigs now live indoors where they are protected from extreme weather, predators, and disease spread from humans. People around the world are interested in what is happening to agriculture in the Midwest because it affects the prices that they pay for food. In the drought year of 2012, television crews from four television networks, including one from China and Al Jezeera, interviewed him as a typical American farmer because their viewers wanted to know what was happening to food prices.

He also talked a bit about property taxes. Although property taxes have fallen for most people, they have risen for farmers because the value of farm land has tripled in the past ten years.

He thanked the FFA students who helped serve food and park cars. He thanked the Indiana Soybean Alliance for their support for this event. (I talked to a representative of the Indiana Soybean Alliance and discovered that he also worked for the Indiana Corn. The two different groups have the same staff.) And then as the sun set, the event ended. It was an informative and enjoyable afternoon.


Desert Survivor said...

Very interesting post!

Anonymous said...

Anti-GMO movement is very much alive in the US not just Europe. When you breed a plant to have pesticide in it, the fruit which it bears will also have pesticide in it. It is meant to explode the belly of bugs that try to eat the plant. It is doing the same thing to the human gut. More people than ever have leaky gut syndrome. We should be less concerned about feeding every other nation and more concerned about the health of our own. But its all about the money.