Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Your Father's Farm Anymore

While planting corn in Nebraska and chatting via Facebook on my iPhone with my third cousin in California, it dawned on me how much agriculture has changed in the short 14 years since my father passed away.

My father started farming in 1937 after graduating from high school. At that time my grandfather was just starting to transition from horse power to tractor power. They farmed 240 acres, had a hired man and worked very hard.

During my father's career he was an early adapter. That is, he was rarely the first to use new technology or ideas, but was very early to add it to the farm after he saw it could work.

He adapted very early to using reduced tillage. I barely remember him using a plow for anything except mother's garden. Once he and Mom were on a trip through Iowa and while eating at a downtown cafe they overheard the farmers talking about "John Doe" who wasn't going to plow that year. They were debating whether his corn would even grow. Dad started laughing and told them he hadn't plowed in over 10 years and the corn would grow just fine. Of course he was still chiseling the ground and disking it twice before planting.

By the time of his retirement we had advanced to ridge planting, a form of minimum till. No-till was on the horizon. We had started electronically controlling fertilizer application. Genetically modified seed was just being introduced. But I think even he would be amazed at how much and how fast farming has changed.

File photo of a 730.
I remember as a youth helping Dad hook up to his planter. A John Deere 730 (53 horsepower, tricycle front end, no cab, 6 gears, hand clutch) to his 4-row planter with the 3-point hitch. He put in a seed plate and then filled each row with half to 2/3 of a bag of seed. The row markers were controlled with a rope. Then he'd go plant.

Today I run a New Holland T-8010 (210 horsepower, 19 gears that power shift, mechanical front wheel drive, duals, roomy quiet temperature controlled cab with stereo radio, all the tractor controls are switches that connect with electrical wires) with 300-gallon fertilizer tanks bolted on each side and the front. I'm hooked up to a Case 12-row 30-inch spacing planter with our Category 3 quick hitch 3-point that has a hydraulic top link. There are 8 hydraulic hoses connecting the planter to the tractor, 4 wiring harnesses, 4 air lines, and 2 fertilizer hoses. Each row will hold 2 bags of seed.

I have an Ag Leader Integra guidance computer mounted in the tractor cab that utilizes both the U.S. and Russian GPS satellites for steering the tractor in straight lines. We have no row markers anymore. It is also telling the planter how many seeds to drop and how much fertilizer to apply. The target seed population is changing as I drive through the field because we know which areas can produce more and which areas will produce less from ten years of yield data that is also GPS collected by the combine.

We use a disc or chisel only when we have to. Our ground is either ridge-tilled, if it is gravity irrigated, or no-till, if it is watered by pivot or subsurface drip irrigation. We figure every time we move the soil we are losing moisture and burning diesel fuel. If possible we let the worms and microorganisms in the soil do our work.

Dad started collecting soil samples from every field every year 35 years ago, including a deep sample for nitrates. He then fertilized each field according to the soil test. That was revolutionary then. Now we sample every 20 acres every year and grid sample every 5 acres every 5 years. Dad tested for nitrogen, phosphorus and pH. Now we test for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, zinc, calcium, magnesium, sodium, hydrogen, pH and organic matter. We use the grid sample soil test to create maps that show which areas of the fields are high, medium or low in each nutrient. Then the agronomist makes up maps with variable amounts of several different fertilizers to correct the deficiencies.

Hybrid seed corn started while my Dad was farming. He would plant a good hybrid for 5-10 years until something better came along. All the seed I plant now is high tech GMO seed that is bred to kill insects that eat it and/or live through herbicides that will kill all other plants. I try new hybrids every year and a good hybrid might last only 3-4 years before it is outpaced by newer ones.

Irrigation has changed a great deal over the last 50 years. When Dad started farming he used open ditches and lath boxes to control the flow down each row. The lath boxes soon became siphon tubes. They would hire land levelers to move soil around so there was an even slope to the field. Instead of having ditches run through the field at several locations, they moved the ditches to one end and had longer runs. The open ditches started to become gated pipe while I was in high school, which meant much less labor was required to irrigate. Now I'm replacing the gated pipe with center pivots and subsurface drip irrigation. Again, greatly reducing labor requirements.

Dad would go out with a spade and dig down 6 inches and feel the soil to tell when to irrigate. Now we have electronic soil moisture probes that communicate via cell phone to the internet. I can read them on my cell phone and if needed I can start the well and turn the pivot on, all from my cell phone. If the pivot gets stuck or has a problem it sends me a text message.

All of Dad's corn went to feed his cattle in his feedlot. I had to close the feedlot in 2003, as it was too small to operate efficiently and was going to require some very expensive environmental updates to stay operating. Now much of the crop that will be harvested will be used to make ethanol for automotive fuel or will be fed to livestock somewhere else.

When returning from college I bought our first computer, a rare Apple III. (No, I don't have it anymore, traded it in.) It ran VisiCalc (forerunner to Excel), Basic (programming language) and some type of text editor. Now our farm runs on 2 iMacs in the office. Wife has a MacBook and both of us have iPads. I am writing this blog on my iPad while planting corn, since the guidance monitor will take care of most functions while going through the field.

What's next? We have been experimenting with cover crops for several years and are now making them a part of our rotation. Cover crops are planted after we harvest and will grow until the next season. We do not harvest them. Their purpose is to feed the soil microorganisms and worms, build organic matter and loosen up the soil. Now we realize the soil is full of living breathing organisms that can make or break our crops. There is more that we don't know than we do know about the interactions they have with our crops.

And then there is the changing role of women in agriculture. Women have always been partners with their husbands on the farm. Now many of the sales people, advisers, reporters and electronic techs I work with are women. Several days I come in and confess to my wife I have been texting other women all day. Since farming no longer requires as much brute force and is more mental, the number of women actively farming is increasing rapidly and that's a great thing.

Now we need many young people to enter agriculture. Some as farmers, but many more to fill the many occupations that we rely on every day. They do not need to have a farm background, although that helps. We need students who love science or math and enjoy the rural lifestyle. The University of Nebraska College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences (CASNR) is at record enrollment, but is looking for more students as they cannot graduate enough to fill the jobs available.

Hopefully some of you may know a young person who fits this niche. The world's population is predicted to rapidly increase and the amount of food we produce must increase even faster to stop famine in parts of the world.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ag Pen Pals

Barb & I have been Ag Pen Pals for many, many years. This is a program organized in Nebraska by Nebraska Farm Bureau that matches farm families with classrooms across the state. The farm families are asked to just write three letters through the course of the school year. If possible we try to visit the classroom at least once in the year. Most of the classrooms are in Omaha and Lincoln, our 2 largest cities. But we've discovered that students in smaller towns don't know much about agriculture either.

This year we are matched with a classroom in Lexington, my home town. The teacher was just a year behind me in school so we've know each other a long time. She decided to join the program this year because many of her students were from a farm, just not from the United States. Her class is called the Newcomers because they are newcomers to the U.S. and most of them are learning English.

Our class has 12 second and third graders from 7 countries around the world. The first time we visited our class was after harvest and only some of the students could ask us questions in English. Other students had to translate for those who could not speak English. The kids were laughing as they had discovered that the Spanish they speak in one country does not always match up with the Spanish from another country.

The first visit some of their questions came as a complete surprise. One little girl asked why Barb had the same last name as I did. In her former country the women do not take the husband's family name when they get married. In their first letters to us (around Thanksgiving) another girl told us she was thankful for a house, as she had never lived in a house before. Several of these children grew up in refugee camps. We are so fortunate to live in America!!

We visited a second time this week as part of Ag Week (see last post). What a fantastic change! As we walked in the door many of the students rushed over to give us a hug! They were all asking questions and chatting in English.

We had an experiment for them to start. We thought since it is spring we would have them watch a corn seed sprout. Each student got a zip lock bag and the teacher put their names on them. Than each got a cotton ball and got it wet. I handed out 2 kernels of corn that came from our bin. They put the kernels on the wet cotton ball inside the bag and sealed it.

Hopefully next week they will see some roots and shoot emerge.

Our stash of hats, after the giveaway!
Each student then got to pick out a farmer hat for themselves since they had just planted corn. We always get a bunch of hats from all over and they were thrilled to help relieve our closet. One student was especially happy to get a Case hat as his father is a mechanic on a farm and works on Case equipment.

Next they were asking all kinds of questions about farming and living on the farm. They were amazed when they heard we have baby chickens coming in the mail. They had never thought that our farm cats and dog have jobs to do on the farm.

We are working with the teacher and her principal to get the students out to the farm when we start planting corn in a few weeks. You can be sure we'll post about that then.

If you ever wanted to feel really appreciated, make arrangements to visit with a classroom in your hometown. No matter what your occupation the students will enjoy getting to know you and love that you care enough about them to show up.
Our Ag Pen Pal class with their hats.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Ag Week!!

Today is the first day of Ag Week, a week "to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture" to paraphrase This is a special week for me as a farmer, but it should be a special week for you as well.

For me this is special because one branch or another of my family have been farmers for as far back as I can trace. While all of the branches of my family tree have been farmers for the last 4-6 generations, the Winterton family has been farming for at least 10 generations, and probably forever.

But this should be a special week for all of you as well, because everything you eat and most of what you wear starts with agriculture. Because the American farmer is so productive, 98% of you can live and work in towns and cities across the country. 

In 1776, 40% of the American population were small or medium sized independent farmers, raising their own food and clothing. There were also large plantations, primarily in the south, that employed lots of labor, some free and many slaves.

Today the United States is the only country in the world that does not need to import food to feed its own people. While we do import food, it's because of convenience or desire. All of us like our fresh fruits and vegetables year around so they are often imported.

Farming is tough, dirty and sometimes dangerous. Unfortunately I know too many farmers who are missing a finger, toe, hand or arm. I only have to look in the mirror in the morning to find one of them. We have to deal with physical and mental stress every day. 

 It used to be all you needed to be a farmer was a strong back and a good wife. No longer. I really like the poster above. Farmers today have to be astute businessmen or women. That's right women. Farmers who happen to be women make up a quickly growing segment of our industry. 

So with all these hardships, why do I do it? Because I can. Because it is what I love! Most days I feel I am the luckiest guy around because I get to farm the same ground my father, grandfather and great-grandfather farmed.

Farmers are independent. We get to set our own hours, as long as the work gets done. The joy of watching a newborn calf or pig. The joy of a little corn seedling coming through the soil. The joy of harvest. The ability to stop for a moment and play with your dog. The joy of seeing your children while you are working, and yes, the ability to give your children farm chores.

We get to live and work with God's creation all around us. We get to listen to the birds sing, watch deer and squirrels. Faith in God is very important. I have found that most of my farmer friends have very strong faith lives and are active in their respective churches. We know that we are only helping God raise our crops and livestock.

This week, wherever you live and work, give thanks for the farmer who grew your breakfast, lunch and dinner; who grew the material in your clothes.  We do it because we love it, but appreciation is always nice.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Descended from Royalty?

This is a story, a story with many twists and a few surprises.
As some of you may know, I do genealogy as a hobby. It's like working on a jigsaw puzzle, except you don't know what the pieces look like, nor do you know the final picture. You just keep looking for a new piece to fit into what you have already put together.
I had a great start to my family tree. My uncle Russell Batie had researched the Batie tree extensively and traced it back to a chapel in Northumberland, England. I haven't been able to trace that line back any further, but there are more lines than just my paternal paternal line.
My father's mother's family is quite interesting to me since I live on, and farm their original homestead and tree claim after they emigrated from England. So I delved into the Pickering Family. I have traced them back to, and visited, Hartshorne, Derbyshire, England. One of my great grandmother's family I've traced back about 10 generations into Leicestershire. Pretty exciting.
I've also been trying to keep current with all the new marriages and babies and deaths in the family so we can keep a list of who's who. I am always behind. Facebook is great to get the birth announcements from proud grandparents, I just forget to enter them into the family tree right away.
On my mother's side the Burbank family has been traced back to Massachusetts in the 1600's. There are ideas how they got to Massachusetts but no concrete data. I have a copy of a Burbank family genealogy book that lists my 95-year old mother as one of the youngest members of the family.
One ling time stumbling block for me was my mother's grandmother, Maggie Turley. All of the Burbank cousins had heard stories of Maggie Turley. But the story ended with her. We knew that she was not raised by her parents and she died before her son, my grandfather, was married. So we had her picture and story of being raised and little else.
Then God stepped in. I have no other way of explaining how this could have happened.
When my mother was moving from her independent apartment to assisted living, my sisters and I were cleaning out her closets because she couldn't take many of her things with her. One box we got into had a packet of letters tied up with a string. One of the girls tossed it to me, since I was the family genealogist.
Since this was August and I farm, nothing was looked at until Christmas season. I then re-found the packet of letters as we were cleaning for family to visit. I untied the string, opened the letter on top and quickly went running up the stairs.
This was a letter to Maggie Turley, Yes, my great-grandmother. From her father, John. Who I didn't know a thing about. Included in the packet were over 20 letters from John Turley to his daughter, starting when she was too little to read until after her marriage.
Now why do I say this is a God moment? Because nobody still alive in the Burbank family had ever seen these letters before. Not my mother, who had them in a box for years, nor any of her brothers or sisters. They survived my grandparents moving from house to house during the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties. One year they even survived in a former chicken house because the family was so poor. How did these letters survive totally intact in perfect condition? How did they only come to light when I was ready and able to use them to trace our tree?
Included in the letters were references to a doll that he bought her for Christmas one year, the doll my sister inherited as Maggie's doll. Also referenced was a set of pictures of John. Which I had in another box of unlabeled pictures. His description was enough to ID the right pictures.
Later in the packet was a telegram from the Firemen of Chico, CA that her father John had died. As far as I can tell she never saw her father after he left her at age 2.
There were other letters in the packet, letters from friends in the Sandhills of Nebraska, letters from aunts and most importantly for me, letters from both of her grandmothers.
Turns out that Maggie's mother had died shortly after giving birth to her younger brother who also died. John was so distraught that he left her in the care of his aunt, Mary, and left for California.
The grandmother's letters included names of her mother, grandparents and great grandparents. I hurriedly entered that in my family tree and leaves began to pop. For those who haven't used their website, they add leaves to a family member if they have hints for you. Usually they are connections to another family tree or census data or whatever.
Maggie's family includes the Long Family, the Goodpasture family and the Turley family. All three families are large and are intertwined several times as the families moved from Kentucky to Illinois to Nebraska.
The Turley line goes back to John Thomas Turley, my 4th great grandfather. He married Elizabeth Frogge. Next stop is John Frogge, my 7th great grandfather. He married Elizabeth Strother. Now things really got going. Turns out the Strother family is HUGE. And well connected. Now I can count President Jimmy Carter and General George Patton as cousins of mine, distant cousins to be sure, but still cousins. There is a Strother Family Society that I now belong to that does much research.
Links quickly went to William Strother my 10th great grand father. That is where it sat for several years as a stumbling block. It is really hard to get solid connections across the ocean. Thankfully another distant cousin found the right link.
Turns out that William (9th g.g.father) Strother's mother and mother-in-law were sisters. Yes that means first cousins got married. Get over it. It happened, a lot. Their maiden name was Savage. The distant cousin found them listed in a book of English Peerage. The group of Earls, Barrons and Kings of England. My family!
That list is extensively researched in England and several websites have the genealogy all laid out. Who married whom and who were their parents. All connected by links. It is easy now to go zipping down one family line or another. Many of the entries include fascinating tales of the individual.
First hint of royalty I got was with my 15th great grandfather Humphrey Stafford, who married Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn who married King Henry VIII. Further research down that line yielded no other royalty, except that his father Sir Knight Humphrey was executed by King Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth that ended the War of the Roses. Humphrey backed the wrong King of England.
So I backed up and went down other lines, more fascinating tales. More executions. Seems like getting on the wrong side of the King was pretty easy.
And then I happened on the last name of Plantagenet. Now I'm no English historian, but I knew that was the name of one of the Royal families. So up that line I went. Sure enough, my 23rd great grandfather was King Henry III. From there it was straight up the King line to King WIlliam I, or William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard, depending on which side you were on. King William is my 28th great grandfather. Wow!
After a bit of mucking about in the family lines I found another way up to King William. Not to mention the sisters who were both in my family tree, and then there was the brother-sister set of grandparents. Needless to say the British Peerage is very inbred. I think I have found a total 8 different lines that lead to King William.
Many other family lines go back to the Norman Conquest that William led. Looks like many of his fellow knights are in at least one of my family lines. The most distant Stafford ancestor is there at least 12 times, maybe more.
This might sound really impressive. But when you consider that there are over 536,000,000 possible 28th great grandfathers, the chances of finding at least one that is famous is pretty high. The difficulty is going back that far.
I was very lucky. First that the packet of letters survived and was found. Second I only had to go a few generations on my own and then ran into extensively researched families here in America. Then the jump into the English Peerage is the luckiest find of all. All that work has been done for me and has multiple connections and sources.
So what does this mean? Not much, except that it is a fascinating hobby for me. No need to bow the next time you see me. I'm not really royalty.