WILMINGTON, Del. — Brandon Bonk may look like a traditional farmer. But this 28-year-old fifth-generation farmer is a different breed.
His equipment is guided over nearly 3,000 acres he tends by satellites and microchips. His seed is morphed in labs to resist bugs and droughts. His fertilizer is rationed by sensors and software to encase the seed only, with nothing extra left to sit on the soil or leach into waterways.
Back in the farmhouse, a computer details soil sample results and analyses. It provides insight for fertilizer recommendations.
Bonk’s farm is like many today: driven by technology that raises yields, limits runoff and adjusts to changing weather, pests and commodity prices.
It’s known as “precision farming,” and it isn’t a luxury, said Dave Wharry, a farm tech guru.
“What we focus on makes the farming cycle more efficient, profitable and reduces the environmental impact,” said Wharry, a specialist for Hoober Inc., a farm equipment dealer in Middletown, Del. “Precision ag is all about the right product, in the right amount, in the right place, at the right time.”
In so many respects, the farming life may never change.
Farmers get their hands dirty, work their fingers until they swell and then work some more. They get around their fields in pickups, working an industry with notoriously narrow profit margins.
But the basics of farming and tools needed to feed a hungry global population aren’t what they used to be. For that matter, neither are farmers. They’re better.
Sure, some still check elevator weight tickets at harvest’s end to determine how the year’s crop fared compared with last year, or watch TV or even grab a “Farmer’s Almanac” to predict the weather.
But more and more farmers are like Bonk, a 2006 graduate of Iowa State University with a degree focused on agriculture systems and biotechnology. He is plugged into real-time Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and every cyber line of communication society has spoiled us with.
For this rugged farmer with an unmistakably warm way, riding out the digital learning curve isn’t an option. It’s a necessary immersion.
The reward is handsome. The advantages of “precision ag” and the spread of satellite technology during the past 10 years are invaluable to 21st-century farmers. It results in higher yields, less waste, higher profits, less environmental impact, higher growth and a priceless perk — less time away from the family.
Unlike their predecessors, Bonk’s generation and others who have embraced the change are connected, even in the hot sun on a dusty field in a cab of a combine.
The modern tools allow him to smartly, efficiently handle 2,800 acres of corn, wheat and soybean crops in Magnolia, Del., about 60 miles south of Wilmington, Del., including the 200 acres at his home farm, built sometime in the mid-1700s.
The farm revolution begins with satellite and data connections and sensors that translate to information that is up-to-the-minute, on-demand and at a farmer’s fingertips via GPS monitoring and mapping systems.
It begins with auto-steering capabilities installed in tractors that plows rows and plants seed with subinch accuracy, then later harvests the fruits of the labor with the same precision. The systems track yield data and keep records for year-to-year analysis.
“The tractor’s driving itself, and it makes it so much easier not having to worry about keeping a straight line or holding a steering wheel. It’s virtually stress free,” said Bonk, standing 6 feet 4 inches in a pair of crop-beaten Wrangler jeans.
Bonk uses a GPS system that controls steering, prevents seed overlap and recalls crop rows to the inch; a plant monitor that tracks the numbers of acres planted and displays where planting has occurred; a crop start device that controls the rate of fertilizer drop to help seeds grow and uses targeted placement to prevent overfertilizing and cut waste; and a data logger that maps and records planted crops and the varieties of seed used for future analysis.
By logging seed variety data, farmers gain the edge of determining which seed worked best, where, when and why.
The cost of accuracy, according to Bonk, is well worth it. Equipping his tractor and the combine with digital add-ons cost about $28,000 each.
Beneath the soil
The computer technology is evident the moment you clamber into the cab of one of Bonk’s vehicles. But equally revolutionary technology lies well out of sight in the seeds he has planted in the soil.
The development of hybrid seeds created a stream of varieties, with scientists in the labs or DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta breeding in “traits” that make corn or soybean plants resistant to chemicals that kill insects or able to grow better in drought conditions or endure frost.
“Improved genetics for all the crops is kind of a hidden technology,” said Ed Kee, secretary of the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “In 1977, we had a terrible drought, and corn hybrids were only able to average about 40 bushels per acre. Nonirrigated corn today can withstand the drought, and the average is 100 bushels per acre.”
The result of technology, better irrigation and better seeds is a steady rise in crop yields in the farm belt.
Bonk’s acreage includes seeds of many types, with varieties chosen based on past performance. Each year, he sets up a 20-acre pilot area to determine what he will buy for the following year. Most of his seeds are supplied by Channel Seed, patented by St. Louis-based Monsanto.
Improvements now come rapidly.
“We have the ability to come up with a new variety and cut the (development) time in half to three and a half to four years, versus nine years, then integrate traits into that variety,” said Jim Popham, district sales manager for the firm.
Being a weather bug is yet another must, also aided by advances in forecasting technology.
That is becoming more important because of weather shifts most likely resulting from climate change, which may impact the temperature or the length of the growing seasons a little bit, Kee said. Development of better drought-tolerant seeds is a strategy to counter the impact of shifting climate, along with advances in irrigation.
Despite the summer’s devastating drought, which withered the nation’s corn crops, Bonk was mostly spared, his yield only a bushel off from the previous year. Corn prices in August rose to a record high of $8.49 per bushel, giving the young farmer much to be thankful for.
A better steward
Bonk’s micromanaged farm also allows him to better care for the land — and the environment well beyond his acreage.
The farmers who can buy into the new technologies are in a far better position to comply with strict federal regulations in place to protect waterways from nutrients that leach from farm into streams and contribute to algae growth and oxygen depletion.
Dale Moore, the deputy director for public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C., said using GPS to ensure accurate placement of fertilizer and nutrients is the most efficient way to control use of the products and limit applications to only what is needed for a plant to grow.
“The water monitoring occurring at the federal and state level are seeing improvements in our streams,” Kee said. “This is just beginning, but the technology is part of it. GPS is helping to reduce nutrient loading, which improves our water quality.”
It all adds up to a complex business that Bonk likens to a hobby. It’s a business he is very passionate about.
“You have a result every year. That’s about 50 shots to get it perfect,” he said. “If the weather works out, the markets work out, you hit a home run. You’re always striving to do better than you did before. It’s very rewarding.”