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How AgTech Helps One Texas Farmer Battle A Tough Farming Climate

July 15, 2015

Dale Artho’s family has been farming Texas’ panhandle region for three generations. As a result, Artho has unique insight on how agtech has changed the business of farming and what may be in store for the next generation of farmers.

Located in Wildorado, Texas, part of the state’s panhandle region, the Artho family has had to deal with some of Texas’ toughest farming conditions. “We are farming at roughly 4,000 feet elevation, so I plant and harvest about the same time as the Midwest does. I might get 20 inches of snow, some years I might get 40 inches,” says Artho. “The microclimate that I farm in is not what most people think of when they think about Texas.”

Clay loam soil, a difficult soil to work with despite its strong nutrient base, dominates most of Artho’s land and he grows “hearty” row crops on it including corn, sorghum, wheat and cotton that can handle the “harsh climate”. He also raises cattle on the land. Roughly one-third of Artho’s operation is irrigated, while the remaining two-thirds is dry land, which, as Artho puts it, depends on “divine providence to survive”.

But, he must be doing something right. Last month, Artho was appointed to serve on the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee. The committee will provide advice and information to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the US Trade Representative on the administration of trade policy, including the enforcement of existing trade agreements and new negotiation objectives for future agreements.

In addition to his experience farming in Wildorado, Artho will contribute the knowledge and experience he has gained experimenting with various agriculture technologies. For example, he has recently been investigating the incorporation of WeedSeeker into his operation, a technology that helps farmers ensure the productivity of their soil inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

“About 98 to 99 percent of the chemistry I use never hits the target, because I’m broadcast spraying everything.” WeedSeeker solves this problem by using a technology that helps the sprayer identify plant matter versus bare ground.

Developed by Trimble, a GPS technology company, the device is adaptable to most sprayers and has a maximum length of 135 feet. “We have big fields in our country, so you want to be able to cross as many acres as you can. This kind of technology allows us to minimize other expenses in addition to chemistry uses.” As an added bonus, the device allows Artho to create maps showing where his crops are under the most weed pressure and where the highly resistant weeds are located. Overall, Artho estimates that Weedseeker could save his business as much as $250,000 a year.

When it comes to water, Artho is particularly excited about new breakthroughs in nanotechnology. “They’ve developed a tool based on this beetle that lives in a desert that only gets a half-inch of rainfall per year. This beetle has learned how to get water out of the air.” In 2011, Australian industrial engineer Edward Lincare came up with a technology called Airdrop modeled after the thin hydrophilic membrane that covers the Namib Desert beetle’s back. The Namib Desert beetle thrives despite having virtually no access to water. Lincare’s device uses a solar-powered turbine to draw water into the chamber, which consists of a series of pipes that condense the water and deliver it straight into the ground.

For Artho, and many other farmers, the tool with the most long-term potential appears to be big data. “I can build a database so that whenever I hand the keys to my son, all the mistakes I made and all the stuff that I messed up will be right there,” he says. “He will have that database, which will give him the metrics and probabilities that he needs to think about.” Considering that farming is often an endeavor in trial and error, keeping detailed records about what works and what doesn’t could prove invaluable when it comes to helping future generations of farmers meet the ever-growing demand for food.

“If you want to survive, there’s a couple of things you have to do in this business. You have to consider that planting is the most important thing that a farmer does. When you put the seed in the ground you need to plant the right seed and use the best seed, and put it in the ground right so that it has the best chance to survive.”

If increasing numbers of farmers opt into data sharing, the result could be the most powerful, accurate, and up-to-date inventory of farming data, reflecting the culmination of years of farming wisdom for future generations. Databases may also make it easier to help young and inexperienced farmers reach successes earlier and at a more frequent rate. As Artho says: “There are always more mouths to feed.”

There are ways in which the burgeoning agtech sector can improve, however, particularly when it comes to data input processes, argues Artho.

“We aren’t sitting at a desk inputting all of this data. We are sitting in a tractor cab,” he says emphasizing the need for easier ways for farmers to input mountains of data. This would not only improve many farmers’ current experiences with agtech, but likely draw a few new customers as well, he argues.

Beyond data input, Artho would also like to see better integration between service providers. Currently, a number of agtech products are not designed to connect or communicate with products from other developers and manufacturers, leaving farmers with a cumbersome package of applications and devices. “If we don’t integrate all this stuff we are shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Artho.

Kinks and hiccups aside, Artho has seen agtech make a significant difference to his operations, particularly when it comes to longevity. These technologies have allowed Artho to stay in the tractor saddle much longer than his father and his grandfather. “My dad, when he was my age, was done,” he says. “What this technology allows us to do is to cover more acreage and be more efficient and this has addressed our longevity.” According to Artho’s wife, Kathy, he doesn’t intend to hang up his work boots anytime soon. According Kathy: “He is going to be farming until they drag him out kicking and screaming.”

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