Amber waves of techology

waves of grain

Grains factor prominently in my diet, which can be explained in part by the fact that I come from a family of grain farmers. I have grain on the brain even more after listening to an NPR story on the latest farming technology. Agricultural giants Monsanto and John Deere are offering a service that lets these big companies collect data from farmers, minute by minute, as the farmers plant and harvest their crops.

Even though the phrase "small farm" conjures images of simple living, expansive skies, and old-fashioned ways, today's farms utilize an astonishing array of technology. My brother, who owns a small farm in the upper plains of the United States, demonstrated this to me during spring planting. He allowed me to ride in the tractor with him as he planted wheat in one of his fields. His tractor was trailed by a veritable train of equipment: a soil conditioning implement, a pneumatic seeding device, and a tank of fertilizer were connected like train cars to the tractor. A GPS-enabled device mounted on the tractor communicated with the train of implements. Information about yields and the results of soil testing was programmed into the device, which then controlled the seed spacing, depth of planting, and amount of fertilizer to be applied, varying these amounts in different parts of each field in the hopes of achieving maximal yield at harvest time. Gone are the days of the grizzled farmer chewing a kernel of wheat to determine its readiness for harvest (although it's still fun to chew the grain). Today's farming equipment reads the moisture content, determines the protein levels, and calculates yield on the fly - saving the data to use in next year's planting.

This equipment is not cheap, yet the price of grain remains relatively low. Only by increasing yields can farmers make a profit, and each year that becomes increasingly difficult. Hence the emphasis on technology, and the new services being offered to farmers by big agribusiness to accompany propriety seeds and fertilizers. Some farmers embrace this technology, hoping it will allow them to better manage land and increase yields, but others, including farm organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, are more skeptical about sharing their data. The risks of sharing include competitors receiving the information and using it to their advantage when bidding against the farmer on land, for instance.

How all of this information sharing will work for or against farmers remains to be seen. The next time you chew on your favorite bread or savor that al dente pasta, think about how much technology is in a simple kernel of wheat.

Some great recipes from the EYB library that use those high-tech wheat kernels:

Saucy tomato-poached eggs with kale and wheat berries by Megan Gordon
Wheat berry fools with Grand Marnier figs by Maria Speck
Warm wheat berries with roasted Brussels sprouts by Susie Middleton (don't forget about the cookbook giveaway featuring Susie's latest book)
And dozens more!

Photo by Darcie Boschee

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