High-Tech Innovations by Farmers Have Inventions Cropping up in the Fields

Jacob Bunge reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The green tractor trundling across a Manitoba field with an empty cab looks like it’s on a collision course with Matt Reimer’s combine—until it neatly turns to pull alongside so he can pour freshly harvested wheat into its trailer.

The robot tractor isn’t a prototype or top-of-the-line showpiece. It’s an eight-year-old John Deere that the 30-year-old Mr. Reimer modified with drone parts, open-source software and a Microsoft Corp. tablet. All told, those items cost him around $8,000. He said that’s about how much he saved on wages for drivers helping with last year’s harvest.

“Mr. Reimer’s alterations, which he hopes to replicate for other farmers this year, are part of a technology revolution sweeping North America’s breadbasket. Farmers, many of them self-taught, are building their own robotic equipment, satellite-navigation networks and mobile applications, moving their tinkering projects out of machine sheds and behind a computer screen.”

Mr. Bunge indicated that, “This homespun hacking—which sometimes leapfrogs innovations by big equipment companies like Deere & Co. and navigation specialists like Trimble Navigation Ltd.—reflects dwindling farm incomes, the low price of electronic hardware and, sometimes, off-season boredom. Such projects could eventually compete for farmers’ dollars in the farm-technology market, which generates an estimated $2 billion in annual sales, according to data and research firm IBISWorld.”

With respect to the current ag economy, the Journal article explained that, “A three-year slump in major crop prices, however, threatens the big bet on farm technology by companies like Deere, Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., which have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into precision-guided planters and algorithm-powered advice on managing crops—plus cloud-based systems to manage the data. Sliding prices for everything from meat to melons has U.S. net farm income on pace to fall to $54.8 billion this year, down 56% from 2013 and the lowest level since 2002, according to government forecasters…[W]ith less money to spend, some farmers say they can build their own tools, suited to their farms, at a lower cost.”

Today’s article added that, “Some farmers-turned-techies aim to reap profits on their innovations. Dirt Tech, a startup run by two farmers and two software engineers, is developing a range of mobile applications that help map soil fertility across farmers’ fields, or mark rocks to avoid damage to machinery or allow for yanking them out. The Elbow Lake, Minn., company’s apps have been downloaded more than 4,500 times.”

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