Farmers Embrace Computer Technology in Different Ways

11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

NORTHUMBERLAND, N.Y. — A century ago, farm chores meant getting up early to milk cows by hand, cleaning out stalls and bringing in a load of hay the old-fashioned way — a hot, sweaty, back-breaking job.

These days, Jan King mounts an iPad in his climate-controlled tractor when planting corn or soybeans, and a software program called FieldView tells him exactly where he is in the field, while providing real-time data about everything the planter is doing — its speed, distance between seeds and the planter’s pressure on the ground.

The service also provides detailed soil map information.

“Some places, where the soil is better, you might want to plant more seeds per acre to increase productivity,” King said. “This stuff amazes me.”

Hard, physical labor and long hours are still a big part of 21st century agriculture, but more and more, the difference between success and failure is quite often determined by a farm’s effective use of technology.

King owns and operates Kings Ransom Farm with his brother Jeff and their father, Edgar.

At harvest time, he can get detailed yield information via the Internet.

“If it’s not as good as it should be, it helps you detect problems such as drainage, fertility or soil pH content, things that affect crop productivity,” King said.

Technology is also vital to the farm’s home-delivery business, King Brothers Dairy, which provides farm-fresh products to customers throughout the area. People can pick out whatever they want such as milk, bread and eggs right from their home computer. Items are then put on a truck and taken to people’s doorsteps.

“Customers have an account, user name and password and can change orders any time they want,” King said. “It’s an old-fashioned glass bottle with a new twist — using the Internet to place orders.”

Nearby, Welcome Stock Farm in Northumberland also has a large dairy herd and is known internationally for its work with genetics, with clients from Japan to Northern Ireland.

“I receive emails every day from people who are looking for embryos,” co-owner Bill Peck said. “Plus, I send out a Word document that can be downloaded to artificial insemination groups and embryo brokers, with information about high-genetic cattle. It’s like a mini-book.”

The farm relies on the Internet for all kinds of things.

Like all dairies, Welcome Stock’s milk is tested regularly for things such as protein and fat content, and somatic cell count, which indicates the milk’s health, safety and quality. Results are available as soon as the testing service, Dairy One, completes its work.

“It’s downloaded to the barn computer,” Peck said.

More farms in New York are connecting to the Internet.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service says 69 percent of New York farms have Internet access, up from 66 percent in 2011. That’s slightly above the national rate.

However, 39 percent used computers for farm business, down from 42 percent two years ago.

Communicating information this way has obvious benefits, said Sandy Buxton, Washington County Cornell Cooperative Extension agent.

“If you have a problem you know about it immediately instead of waiting for it to come in the mail,” she said. “The problem these days with the Internet is that there’s oceans of information out there. But small sips can be quite advantageous.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS, has a soil app that allows farmers to find soil surveys online, right from their cell phones, Buxton said.

“Thanks to GPS, you can stop at a spot in the field, take a sample and tell what the soil type is,” she said. “That’s important because there might be three different soil types in a field. Before, you had to figure it out with old soil maps.”

The Adirondack Grazers beef cooperative has taken technology to a whole new realm by putting movies on its website to let potential customers see what they’re all about.

“It’s vital,” said Sarah Teale, one of the group’s founding members. “All of our customers went to our website first. People want to know where their food comes from. One of the best ways is to keep the information up there — show them who we are, what we do and that they’re getting healthy food.”

Teale is an HBO producer and co-owner of Emsig Farm in North Hebron, Washington County.

“As one farm, you can’t really supply even one restaurant,” she said. “As a group, we can send consistent, quality beef many places.”

That’s why the cooperative was formed. Likewise, it makes sense for farms to promote themselves jointly on the Internet, Teale said.

Their locally-raised beef has many outlets from restaurants in Albany and Saratoga Springs to numerous New York City butchers and eateries. A brief website video shows how award-winning chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York prepares Adirondack beef.

Other websites such as FarmersWeb and Plovgh connect producers with restaurants.

“More and more of these websites are going to be linking farmers with restaurants,” Teale said.

Many farms these days keep customers up to date and entertained with blog posts about fun or interesting incidents on the farm, or which products are currently available. Facebook and Twitter are used the same way.

“It’s an amazing marketing tool and a great way to tell a story,” Buxton said.<\c> Photo by Paul Post

An iPad and desktop computer are vital tools for Jan King, co-owner of Kings Ransom Farm and King Brothers Dairy, a home-delivery service in Northumberland, N.Y. Technology plays an increasingly important role in the everyday lives of 21st century farmers.


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