Cultivate Conference explores the future of technology and agriculture

Note: This article also appears on the Emerging Prairie website and a huge thank-you to them for giving me the opportunity to write an article for them. My first, as an agriculture communicator. 

Over 300 people attended the 2nd annual Cultivate Conference hosted by Emerging Prairie on November 15th, 2018. The conference was a convergence of technology and agriculture presented in TED-style talks from companies providing software programs and applications for farmers and ranchers to do their job better.

“One of the biggest challenges today is to evaluate the combination of various technologies to arrive at the answer to ‘What is Best?’”, was the critical concept presented by Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies.

To answer the question, the presenters highlighted products that addressed diverse problems such as, tractor safety, getting wireless and internet to the farm with a presentation from the infrastructure panel, outdated technology in the back office, tillage, renting and managing land, weather, the cost and availability of feed, and other applications bringing technology to make their job easier.

“I can get 24 tons of feed in two hours; I can’t get Domino’s.” joked Carl Lippert of Grass Ridge Farm, when talking about his app, Feed Manager, developed for his dairy farm in Wisconsin and available to farmers.

With the increase in world population, a continuing labor shortage, and the shifting demographics of farms getting larger, Brian Carroll, Director of the Center for Excellence at Emerging Prairie and his team, has a dream that farming will be autonomous by 2050. To do this, Carroll proposes an EPCOT (experimental prototype community of tomorrow) type center where technology comes together to interact in Fargo.

“We have all the parts in place, we have great companies, we have a university system, we have innovators, we have people building businesses, we have opportunities here that are really the key parts of the engine,” said Carroll. “What we need to do now as a community, is to put a focus on those together and turn that into a high performing engine.”

To do this, Carroll proposed a four-step process for that goal to come to fruition. The first step in the process is an ecosystem to identify opportunities for products to be built.  Second is to start thinking about an accelerator and fill it with businesses around the gaps. Then move into a makerspace, an area where people can come together from different organizations in order to work and collaborate, but also share technology. Lastly, as Carroll stresses, the need to target the education system to look for ways in which we build STEM, research, computer science, and machine learning.

“Our generation may be the last generation to drive a tractor,” said Ryan Raguse, Co-Founder and Chairman of Myriad Mobile, the parent company of Bushel and one of the event sponsors. “There are two types of futurists, indefinite and definite. We need to be the definite futurists and believe the future is going to happen – you get a say.”

The event concluded with the farmer’s panel consisting of Chris Johnson of C&S Farms, Sarah Lovas of Lovas Farms, and Zach Johnson of MN Millennial Farmer. The group discussed such issues as buying and marketing online, technology and the challenges from a generational standpoint, and products that could solve a current pain point. A few things that the panel discussed were, that it is essential to have the service to back-up the product, that it is excellent when it works, and there’s a difference between the analytics saying what’s best for the farm and the actual art form of farming. The panel found the conference very informative and expressed optimism with the current labor shortage, the goal of achieving an autonomous farm.

“There is a lot of great technologies that were presented. It’s very exciting to hear about all the creativity in agriculture,” said Lovas. “Creativity and imagination are a part of being a farmer, and it’s great when we can see that coming from the technology and software standpoint.”

Greg Tehven, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Emerging Prairie, regards the Cultivate Conference as a space for collaboration and exploration of possibilities where technology can create efficiencies for the farmer and hopes to build on its potential.

“Based on the national interest with folks coming in from around the country, as well as the number of farmers who drove from across the state to be here, there’s a tremendous amount of potential,” said Tehven. “We hope to keep building partnerships to bring great innovators from around the world to come to North Dakota to meet folks and see how they can connect together.”

 

 

 

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Profile – Wanda Patsche Connecting Farmer and Consumer Through Her Writing

There are several people who blog about agriculture, the issues happening on their farms and ranches, rural life, and informing consumers about the industry. Wanda Patsche is one such person, who for the past six years, authors the blog and a Facebook page titled “Minnesota Farm Living.”

Patsche initially started with a Facebook page in 2012 when it was not common for farmers to do so and started the page as a necessity.

“I’m starting to read information of things that are not true and what farmers are doing, and I knew for a fact they weren’t true, and I thought I should really talk about this,” said Patsche. “I’m just this Grandma farmer out in the middle of nowhere, who’s going to want to read what I have to say?”

The answer to that question comes through while talking with Patsche; there is an impression of an inquisitive go-getter. Prior to marrying her husband of 40+ years, she asked him why they plowed the fields and how much he made. To which he replied, “it depends.” They purchased their farm located in South-Central Minnesota in Martin County, 10 miles from the Iowa border. They have been farming for 40 years. They raise hogs, about 1600 a year, and farm about 1000 acres of corn and soybeans. Nearly half of the crops go towards the hogs, and the rest of the corn goes to a local ethanol plant and soybeans for processing. For the first 20 years, Wanda worked in town in IT for a local scale manufacturing company.

Her knowledge of IT helped with the development of her Facebook page and subsequently her blog and the promotion to over 12 thousand followers on Facebook. Patsche’s goal is to show what modern farming is like and to bridge the disconnect between farmers and consumers.

“I write to the consumer, who I think about all the time,” said Patsche. She continues, “That I feel is our biggest challenge in agriculture is getting outside of our tribe.”

While posting on her Facebook page, she had the idea of starting a blog but had “an internal dialogue” about doing it as she didn’t have a background in communications or journalism. Despite that hurdle, Patsche attended AgChat conferences with other bloggers and learned what they were doing and was inspired to start her blog six years ago. She has over a million views on her blog and the opportunity to connect with consumers and answering questions that they have.

When consumers have questions, Patsche will first look at what it is being said and tries to engage them in a conversation. If it is a negative comment, she attempts to have a conversation and views it as a challenge of “how can I take this negative comment, turn it around, and look for some common ground or shared values.” Patsche has experienced success doing that. If someone is extreme, she finds that you are not going to convince them and will leave it like that. There are some topics that are hot-button issues, and she will generally avoid them and has learned what they are through her posts.

Patsche started with blog posts once a week trying to put good content out but has since posted less to be selective on what she posts, so it may be once a month. It depends on what is going on in her farm and agriculture and in her personal life.

When Patsche is not writing, she also participates in Ag in the Classroom and was in the middle of assembling pumpkin kits for children in kindergarten through second grade. In Minnesota, they have a public/private partnership of agriculture groups that present over 400 standardized lessons that teachers can bring into the classroom. A previous lesson Patsche taught was working with a local orchard using the apples to make homemade applesauce and making the connection to the children with a 15-minute lesson. For 5th graders, she made them apple detectives and did an apple tasting for the best one based on aroma, texture, and sweetness. Based on these factors, each student filled out a matrix and tabulated the scores based on the criteria which incorporated math. After the tabulation of scores, Patsche revealed the winning apple variety, and she stated that the students were engaged.

Keeping people engaged in the classroom and on social media seems to be natural for Patsche. She was talking about her work while in the tractor disking fields post-harvest. During the conversation, Patsche told a story about a comment she received she saved on her computer as she states, “this one needs special attention.” On a discussion about fertilizer, a reader told her that she should plant pumpkins in the cornrows. Patsche believes the follower was citing what the Native Americans were doing centuries ago.

“All I can do is envision going down the rows with the combine, and there are all these pumpkins all over,” said Patsche.

Patsche also has three daughters; all are married. No one has expressed interest in the farm. Their youngest was just married a couple months ago, and she did marry a farmer, but they live about 45 miles away. She also has five grandchildren ages ranging from age 3 to 11.

 

 

 

 

 

Conservation Programs in the Farm Bill – A win-win-win for farmers, environmentalists, and … hunters?

 

When most people think of the Farm Bill, they think of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or crop insurance for farmers. While these two programs make up most of the funding for the Farm Bill, there are many other aspects to the bill, and one is for conservation. While the 2018 Farm Bill is currently in limbo, the House wants to cut programs by merging them and cut monies for a host of programs concerned with conservation. These programs are a win-win-win for farmers, conservationists, and hunters.

You may wonder hunters? I’ll answer that question after a general overview of three of the larger programs that will be impacted by the 2018 Farm Bill:

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

This is the most substantial aspect of the conservation program, and there are currently 23.7 million acres under the supervision of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and support from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Farmers are paid on a per acre basis for 10 to 15 years based on how land is scored on an Environmental Benefit Index (EBI) and average rents for the area. The EBI looks at erosion, water quality, wildlife benefits, and enduring benefit factors. The program was also put into place to encourage farmers not to plant certain crops due to sagging commodity prices. Pat Westoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, spoke with Harvest Public Media.

“Certainly, there are people who would like to see the ability to roll more acres both for environmental purposes but also frankly as a supply-control measure,” he says. “If there’s less land being used for crop production, that will give at least a modest bump to commodity prices and therefore protect the income of other farmers.”

Bruce Knight writing for Agri-Pulse takes a different approach, “As we look at renewing contracts on expiring acres or raising the acreage cap, we need to be sure that the program focuses on environmentally sensitive acreage, and we don’t wind up with high-quality land under CRP contracts. At the birth of the CRP program, it was used to short the corn and wheat supplies – let’s not make that mistake again.” Knight would rather see it moved into other programs (which I will talk about below) and use CRP for nutrient runoff and specific habitat benefits rather than whole fields.

There are about 5.7 million acres that expired at the end of the funding for the Farm Bill in September. Most of that land that is expired or due to expire is currently in trees and grassland and we need to ensure that the CRP focuses on these environmentally sensitive lands. The World Wildlife Federation supports the program as it preserves grasslands from development and conversion, further supporting wildlife habitat, water conservation, and erosion control.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides farmers and ranchers with a financial cost-share and technical assistance to implement conservation programs. These programs include improvements to irrigation, restoring pasture, and nutrient and pest management. Payments for conservation improvements cover costs incurred from the planning, materials, equipment and installation including labor and training. The USDA may pay up to 75 percent of these costs based on water quality and improvement, air quality improvement, wildlife habitat; including pollinator habitat and invasive species management.  However, socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, beginning and veteran farmer and ranchers are eligible for cost-share rates of up to 90 percent of project costs. Currently, 60 percent of the funds are set aside for livestock producers with five percent for beginning farmers and ranchers, and an additional 5 percent is set-aside for socially disadvantaged farmers – including minority and tribal producers.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NASC) notes that between 2009 – 2015 the NRCS funded over $6.4 billion in financial and technical assistance through EQIP cost-share contracts. Over 260,000 farmers and ranchers received contracts, covering more than 81 million acres. In the fiscal year 2015 alone, there were over 32,900 EQIP contracts covering nearly 9 million acres and obligating over $861 million in financial assistance.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

The CSP works like the EQIP program and is the largest in terms of land under conservation with over 70 million acres. Through the CSP, farmers and ranchers receive technical and financial assistance to maintain existing conservation programs and technical support as well. Farmers and ranchers can implement additional conservation activities on land currently in agriculture production. The CSP program targets are funding activities such as: assist farmers and ranchers improve soil, water, and air quality including conservation of water and energy; provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat; sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change. Payments are determined by costs incurred for the design, materials, installation, labor and maintenance or training. Additional payments are made for crop rotations that include cover crops, and forages that help to sequester greenhouse gases. According to the NASC, “Payments are capped at $40,000 per year or $200,000 over the life of the 5-year contract. Nationwide, payments and technical assistance average $18 per acre. However, payment amounts vary greatly, from lower-cost rangeland improvement contracts to mid-range pasture contracts to higher-range cropland contracts.”

Under the House version of the Farm Bill, this program would be eliminated and merged into the EQIP program. Eliminating this program would be counter-intuitive as a report issued by NASC states that members the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), asserts that for every dollar spent on the program ~$3.95 is generated in the returned value. States primarily in the Upper Great Plains and the Midwest will see a net decrease in funding over ten years.

Win-Win-Win

By now you may be asking, how does this benefit hunters? In an article published in AgWeek this October, hunters were lamenting this year for the pheasant season in North Dakota. Part of the reason was the decline in acreage in the CRP program. In 2007, during the height of acreage in the program, “populations of pheasants, waterfowl, deer and other wildlife soared, and North Dakota hunters in 2007 shot 907,434 roosters, Game and Fish statistics show.” Since that time land enrolled in the program has declined, and that number dwindled to 309,400. Game and Fish has worked with farmers and Pheasants Forever to plant cover crops and other alternative practices on less profitable land to restore the population. Both versions from the House and Senate of the Farm Bill will increase CRP acreage, but the other conservation programs will also help restore habitat, not only for pheasants but other wildlife as well. This is a win for environmentalists to establish more property into conservation programs, and a win for farmers to get assistance for their less-profitable land, make their farms more sustainable and improved for future generations.

There are some people who think there will be some efforts to pass a Farm Bill during the lame-duck session at the end of the year. If so, contact your representative in the House and let them know you want to maintain these conservation programs and to pass the Senate version of the bill.