The amount of equipment found on a horticultural operation is almost mind boggling. A lot of it has been modified over the years by the farmers to better meet their needs. Some of the equipment goes back several generations.
Vegetable farm sizes run the gamut from an acre to thousands of acres. The national average is around 440 acres, according to the USDA Ag Census. On many of the farms I visited during my career I observed growers constantly tinkering and modifying their machinery to make it better or to avoid the expense of purchasing something new.
As I peruse the latest machinery for farms today, I still see a lot of conventional machinery that I’m quite familiar with but also new battery-operated tractors, autonomous sprayers, cultivators and weeders and drones. It seems like we’re moving into a future where the grower sits behind a console, almost like a command center in the military, and controls the equipment in the fields. Add robotics to the mix and we are really into a new age of equipment.
I hope that as changes come about, they are market-driven and economical and not dictated by some governmental agency or regulatory group. Sometimes I find myself caught between the vision of the futuristic farm and the tremendous focus on the health of our soils that takes us back to practices that have been around a long time.
Young farmers are employing an array of both new and old technologies. Many study the history books for solid if somewhat forgotten advice. I have four books written by Liberty Hyde Bailey, an outstanding American horticulturist and botanist and cofounder of the American Society for Horticultural Science. He was credited with being instrumental in starting ag Extension services, the 4-H movement, the nature study movement, parcel post and rural electrification. His books are examples of the wealth of information to be found in books from yesteryear.
Another good example of equipment from yesteryear is the Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor. A couple recently purchased a G tractor which was constructed sometime between 1948 and 1955 and turned it into an electric vehicle. This is an excellent example of hybridization or taking the best from previous generations of farming and adding a modern twist to it. By retrofitting equipment, small-scale farmers can buy something relatively cheap and turn it into a modern tool. In the case of the Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor, it was less expensive than a new machine, and with a bit of work, its owners made it totally silent and emission-free.
At Plowshare Farm in McAlevy’s Fort, PA, Micah and Bethany Schonberg use old equipment, such as wheel hoes and Planet Jr. Garden Antiques, plus older tractors and more modern small equipment for their six-acre organic CSA operation. I was always fascinated by the wheel hoe used by farmers for ploughing, weeding and cultivating. It was invented by manufacturer Planet Jr. in 1890. Up to 1920 they operated a wheel hoe using draft animals. In 1920, Allen & Company invented manually driven wheel hoes. They started with single wheel hoe and double wheel hoe; later wheel hoes were modified for various ag operations using different tools.
Some say that the farm of the future is going to be different, with different skills and tools required. Right now, many farmers rely on tractors, which they maintain and operate themselves. This requires a certain amount of resourcefulness and know-how, but it’s fundamentally different than operating a remote-controlled tractor from a screen, as is being predicted by some. It begs the question: Could software designers, engineers and Ph.D. scientists be critical components of a predicted agricultural revolution?
Ag equipment manufacturers have mainly focused on large, industrial, non-organic farms using pesticides and chemicals. In the past, small growers had few options for the specialized equipment they needed to run their farms more efficiently.
We know the problems of relying on older equipment, which forces farmers to rely on parts that are obsolete and often difficult to find.
Equipment manufacturers engaged in farming understand the complexities of growing crops and the many tools and pieces of equipment that are needed each day by farmers, such as hand tools, irrigation equipment, soil tillage equipment, direct seeding and transplanting equipment, weeding tools, fertilization equipment and equipment to aid in picking, cleaning and packaging the crop in preparation for market. Manufacturers can then develop tools and equipment that are designed, built and distributed for the smaller sized operations who are supplying our communities with fresh, locally grown produce.
As Richard Smith, a vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension said, “We are living in a moment of tremendous activity in ag tech-enhanced field machinery.” I agree, but sometimes I feel caught in a time warp between the farm of the future and the farm of the past.
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