Despite the name of this blog, it isn’t really about farming. I guess it’s more like a journal where I write about things I find interesting, curious, infuriating, irritating, fun. But I often return to talking about farming because it was such a big part of my life for so long. But this one is about farming for a change.
What does that have to do with changes? A lot. I was reading an article about new ag technologies, automated and robotic systems to replace human labor. This has been going on for some time, of course. Robotics and automation have taken over product assembly, car manufacturing and a whole host of other industries. Ag has been slower to adopt robotics because it requires above average intelligence, dexterity, strength and gentleness and a lot of other qualities that are difficult to do with robotics. Until now. New advances in software, AI systems, new engineering, new materials and a lot of other technologies have sprung up that are making fundamental changes in how we grow food over the next couple of decades.
Neat, I thought. But then I thought further and realized that this has been going on my entire life. The pace of change has accelerated, true, but when I look at what farming was like when I was a kid and what it’s like today, it’s actually a bit mind boggling.
When I was a kid we still had a crank style phone. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in second grade. Electricity service went out so often we still had old kerosene lanterns laying around ready to use just in case. A lot of the equipment we used looked like some kind of steampunk nightmare, to be honest.
We still had a few farmers in the area who were harvesting grain with grain binders, shocking it, and running it through threshing machines, for heaven’s sake. In case you’ve never seen one, here’s a photo of a grain binder from an antique farm equipment show I took some years ago. And yes, that thing over there that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of old string, wire and old barn boards, is an actual commercially made machine. It was pulled by horses (that’s why there’s a seat on it). It cut the grain off with a sickle bar, put it in a bunch, tied the bunch with twine, then dumped it on the field. Workers would come along, stand the bundles on end with the grain heads up so it would dry. Then it would be loaded onto wagons and taken to a threshing machine.
And in case you’ve never seen a threshing machine, here’s one. Well, it’s sort of a threshing machine. This is actually a special machine designed specifically for threshing or hulling clover seed, not wheat or oats, but the principle is the same. Workers would throw the bundles onto the elevator over on the left where it would run through threshing bars, fans, screens, etc. to be separated from the stalks and hulls. The hopefully clean seed would come out one pipe to be bagged, the straw would blow out onto a pile. The whole thing was originally powered by a massive steam traction engine via that long belt you see extending out the left side of the photo. Steam engines were replaced in the 1920s or so by gasoline powered tractors, but the threshing machines themselves remained in use well into the 1950s in some parts of the state. There were still a couple of farmers in the area who were using this setup when I was a kid. These things hung on because as long as you could get inexpensive labor it was cheaper to keep using it than buying a combine.
Then there were tractors. Take a look at this beast, for example. Believe it or not, when I was a kid we actually had one of these beasts, this exact same model. And we didn’t have it for some collection, this monstrosity was an actual working tractor at the time. The only thing we used it for was running the blowers to blow grain or forage into the barns or silos, but it was still a working tractor on the farm. And dear lord we hated that thing. Trying to start that beast… Oh, my. It started by manually cranking it with that big lever you see just below the radiator. That connected to the crankshaft to turn the engine over. And if you didn’t know what you were doing when you tried cranking it, it would gleefully break your arm. Seriously. It would if you didn’t know what you were doing.
Lest you think we were weird or something, the rest of our tractors looked like this.
A modern (at the time) Oliver 1655 and a 1950s era Oliver 77. (That 77 actually belongs to my eldest son.) So why did we hang onto that old monstrosity? It was cheap power. You could buy them for little more than scrap metal price.
Almost all of the changes that have gone on in agriculture have occurred for one reason: money. They did something that improved the profits of the farm in one way or another. The old threshing machines hung on as long as they did because for some of the tiny farms around at the time it made more sense to keep running them long after they should have gone to the scrapyard than to drop thousands of dollars on a modern combine. Same with the old McCormick tractor. It was cheap power, good enough to run a forage blower, but for nothing else. As soon as it was no longer economical to hang onto the thing, it got dumped. We ended up buying another 1650 to replace it.
Just in my lifetime we’ve gone from grain binders and threshing machines, to GPS guided computerized combines. Harvesting crops by hand to a facility in New Hampshire that raises lettuce that is never touched by a human during its entire life. From planting to harvesting and packaging, everything is done by automated systems or robots.
Changes… Sometimes I look at the world around me and think I’m living in a science fiction novel.