Are farmers primarily managers of technical information?

The naive notion of Iowa farmers as men who physically labor in the fields and barns from sun up to long after sun down is exactly that, naive. In the past, when my ancestors came from northern Europe to central Iowa, that might have been the case. Erik Tesdahl started with 40 acres of prairie, so he and his two sons might have labored long hours plowing the prairie and building their herd of cattle, but that is a long time ago. Today, I believe, successful Iowa farmers, whatever the size of their operation, must be technology-savvy and able to gather, interpret, and manage large amounts of technical information in order to be successful. A strong back and a strong work ethic still help, but are not enough and it’s no longer solely a man’s world (it never really ever was) either. Men and women work together to make their farming operations go.

Take for example, soil nutrient management. Farmers want to know the N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorus), and K (Potassium) in their soil, and the acidity level. To make an informed decision about adding nutrients to the soil to get the highest possible grain yield, the farmer must conduct and interpret soil test results, make an informed choice about purchasing the nutrients, manage the application of the nutrients, and then follow up with yield data in order to see the results. With these decisions comes the possibility of both success and failure, since there are variables that cannot be controlled by the farmer.

Farming in the Midwest has, since European settlers arrived in the mid-19th century, carried with it both risks and rewards. It also can be viewed as an activity system. A Midwestern agricultural activity system (for more on the idea of activity systems, see (Spinuzzi, includes seed, land, water, technology, farmers, markets, livestock, weather and numerous other elements. In this agricultural activity system risks such as weather, injury, disease, and unpredictable markets have existed for many years. An increasingly important part of this activity system is the technology and the farmers’ management of that technical information. While understanding, implementing, and passing on technical information in the form of techniques, methods, use and crafting of tools has always been a farmer’s job, recently another element of our Midwestern agricultural activity system has emerged: precision agriculture. So my question for farmers is whether their use of precision agriculture tools (yield monitors, variable-rate applicators, guidance systems, and GPS maps) such as those provided by Agleader, Ames, Iowa, and the data they produce, offers a way to reduce risk down on the farm.


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