Farming technology expensive but worth it

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 1, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — As Jason Starnes planted soybeans through a field of old cornstalks last week, a computer warned him that his tractor was too far to the left.
“This is what happens when I steer,” Starnes said, laughing as he corrected.
The northern Rowan County farmer plants crops using GPS-guided technology that keeps him from missing or overlapping spots on the field. The GPS unit uses satellite signals to show his exact location, how far off he is from his designated path and how much of the field already has been covered.
With a simple mechanical device, the system even steers the tractor automatically. Starnes deactivates it to turn the tractor and navigate through difficult areas.
Systems like this cost thousands of dollars, but Rowan County farmers who use them say they’re worth it.
“We’ve noticed some pretty good savings, and it prevents a lot of human error,” he said. “The investment you make in the equipment pays for itself fairly quick.”
Jason Starnes owns Four S Farms in northern Rowan County with his wife, Robin, and his parents, Kim and Connie.
In addition to planting crops, they use GPS to help spray herbicide or pesticide, and a similar method is used to apply fertilizer exactly where and how it’s needed.
The Starneses pay Southern States Cooperative to sample the soil at various spots on the farm and create maps of the soil’s chemistry and content. The company then loads the data on a GPS-equipped spreader truck, which automatically changes the fertilizer’s content and application rate as it spreads.
The soil is given all the nutrients it needs to best grow the crops — and no more.
The farm’s “no-till” planting process sows seed through the remains of previous crops, disturbing the earth as little as possible. This minimizes soil erosion and harmful runoff, and it increases organic matter in the soil as well as beneficial insects and earthworms.
Not all local farmers see the need to keep up with the latest technology.
China Grove resident Frank Corriher tills the ground with a plow before planting crops using his own guidance at Corriher Farms. When he’s not at his job at Mid South Tractor Company, Corriher works on the farm with his sons, Shannon and Wesley, and other family members.
He said it doesn’t make financial sense to buy “fancy equipment” to tend his small amount of land.
“The modern ways are quicker,” Corriher said. Then, with a hint of pride in his voice, he added, “But the traditional way has less riding and more muscle work.”
Agriculture — including crops, livestock, poultry and dairy — is a $62 million industry in Rowan County.
With food prices rising this year, it’s possible that farmers could earn a little more. According to the Associated Press, corn traded at more than $7 a bushel in April — more than double last summer’s $3.50 — and many traders say it could pass the record $7.65 set in 2008.
But small family farms aren’t likely to double their money.
“Of course, it does help at the farm level when food prices go up,” said Joe Hampton, research operations manager at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury. He explained that prices often are tracked by monitoring the cost of 19 regularly purchased items. “Last week, the market basket index was $46, and it’s gone up 3 percent this year. But of that $46, about $7 went back to the farmer.”
The rest of the money may go to processing, transportation, marketing and other costs, Hampton said. Farmers also are spending an increasing amount on fuel, fertilizer and other supplies. Larger farms fare better because they often have more buying and selling power, and they can produce more than enough to cover those costs.
“Fertilizer prices are so high now that you can’t waste it,” said Kim Starnes, Jason’s father. “Twenty to 30 years ago, it was a lot cheaper, so you didn’t think much about it.”
New technology can save money by improving efficiency and productivity — in other words, doing more with less.
“We have tried to use less and less of our resources to produce food and fiber for the country,” said Hampton. “Thirty years ago, when I started working for the Department of Agriculture, it took about 25 gallons of diesel fuel to farm an acre of ground in Rowan County. Today, we can … use 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel to farm an acre of land.”
From an acre of land that once produced 20 to 30 bushels of wheat, Hampton said, farmers now can reap 90 to 100 bushels.
“It’s a combination of better genetics, better management — where we plant in a more timely way than we did in the past — and managing the soil better,” he said.
Hampton said genetic engineering has helped breed more hardy and productive crops, bigger and tastier produce and larger and healthier animals.

The next new advancement in agriculture, he said, will likely be related to the nutrition and bioactivity of food.
“For example, I think it’s possible to breed squash with higher Vitamin A levels,” he said.
Hampton also praised new no-till technology as “monumental” for farming and for the environment.
The Starneses say they use no-till methods, along with measures to prevent erosion and runoff, because farmers are by nature environmentalists.
The pesticides they use are far removed from the harmful chemicals used decades ago, said Kim Starnes, and the herbicide they apply is used regularly in home gardens.
“We do protect the land, soil and water,” Kim Starnes said. “We realize that we need to for future generations.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.