Sitting forward at his desk in Tyner, N.C., Dan Ward, of the C.A. Perry & Son farm operation, leans on his elbows and uses his index finger and thumb to punch in a series of numbers on his cell phone.
He is suddenly communicating — not with a person, but with the computer that controls the operation’s two Lindsay pivot irrigation rigs.
The computer answers the cell with a realistic-sounding man’s voice, audible at several feet. Simple enough.
With a few presses of his thumbs, the farm manager programs in any number of parameters: he tells a specific pivot rig to come on, and at what time; how much pressure to apply; how long to roll; and when to shut the water off.
“I took this phone down to Florida with me,” he says, wagging the cell in the air. “When I rang them up, the pivots told me where they were at in the field. They told me what they were doing, and I told them what I wanted them to do.”
• U.S. farmers depend on technology to keep them ahead.
• They adopt some technologies faster than others.
• Continued success depends on the right choices and policies.
Which tech is a high for you?
A “smart” irrigation rig is just one of the new technologies that farmers use to help them in their jobs. Gary Roberson, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at North Carolina State University, notes there are any number of new technologies on the market. But he notes that farmers are adopting some technologies faster than others. Perhaps more to the point, they are adopting some technologies faster than their competitors in other countries; on the other hand, Roberson notes, they are likely to be lagging foreign competitors in some technologies.
“I think we are adopting the yield monitor really well,” Roberson says. “If what we are looking at is ‘How many bushels did field X produce?’ then the yield monitor is overkill, but if a farmer is interested at looking at how that field is producing, or what parts of that field are good or bad, the yield monitor can tell him that. I think a lot of farmers have realized they can get another layer of management out of a yield monitor — and they are adopting that particular technology very well.”
Tractor and combine autosteer is midstream in terms of being adopted, Roberson says. The people who have begun to adopt autosteer are catching on to the benefits they can get from the technology, but Roberson believes others are dragging their feet.
“That technology is one of the things that is starting to be adopted, but I think could probably be adopted on a profitable basis much faster than it is,” he says.
For example, Roberson says he and his peers at NCSU did a study this past fall on peanut digging, and found that growers were able to significantly reduce digging losses by having the digger operated with automatic steer.
“Most folks will ask, ‘Well, what is the big advantage?’ ” notes Roberson. “Surely the operator of the tractor can hold it on the row. But if you ever sat in the cab of a large tractor on a multirow peanut digger, looking out over that sea of vines out there, you realize how difficult it is. Some of the visual markers that are so dominant early just disappear when the canopy meets in the middle, and there is just a blanket of green out there.”
Add to that the prospect of an operator sitting in the cab of that tractor for eight, 10 or 12 hours a day — when fatigue begins to set in.
“Anything we can do to relieve the stress on that operator is obviously going to make that operator more productive,” Roberson says.
Farther along toward the other end of the spectrum, growers are slow to adopt some of the variable-rate control technologies, “and maybe for good reason,” Roberson notes.
“Variable-rate control is still a rather expensive proposition,” he explains. “In some cases it has proven to be very, very profitable, and in other cases, maybe not so much so. I think some growers are still taking somewhat of a ‘wait and see’ attitude before jumping into that kind of technology.
“Where it works and where it has been well implemented, it has shown some advantages,” he says, “but you’ve got to study it closely to be sure it fits your working environment.”
New tech can turn old hat
Chances are you have probably been adopting technology on a much larger scale than you realize. Dan Ward is modest about his modernity. He notes that at C.A. Perry & Son, they often buy used farm equipment to keep costs down.
“We try to save money on it by buying at sales,” he says.
On the other hand, he adds, “Even though it is used equipment, it will do everything the newest equipment will do.”
The farm operators use GPS soil sampling equipment on the farm, to be able to gauge more precisely what their acres are capable of yielding.
They grow Irish potatoes, milo and some corn, and contract snap beans with Hanover Foods, a cannery and frozen foods operation.
It makes sense for C.A. Perry & Son to make use of technology as much as possible at all its locations, especially because it is such an expansive — and some would say complicated — operation.
The owner and president is Dan’s brother-in-law, Sidney “Bud” Perry, son of the late C.A. Perry. Bud himself has four daughters, the eldest of whom, Sydney Perry Copeland, is a vice president who handles financials for the operation. Bud also has three sons-in-law who work for him as managers.
Besides Tyner, the company has several other locations. A site in Edenton is run by Dan’s son, Jon. Another in Hobbsville is run by Bud’s sons-in-law Corey Clayton and Darren Halstead, and there is another in Weeksville run by son-in-law Don Parks.
The operation employs about 100 people. It buys peanuts and grain. The company has a siding where it can load and ship by the train car. And lately, a big emphasis has been on the export of farm products to other countries.
C.A. Perry & Son also stores and distributes corn and soybean seed for Pioneer.
Just two days earlier, the Tyner warehouses held 145,000 bags of Pioneer corn and soybeans; they had already moved many of those, but still had thousands of bags of high-tech seed inside.
Much of the work C.A. Perry does hinges on having a product delivered to a warehouse or having products moved from one location to another; doing bookkeeping; and keeping up with where products are stored.
Although a large part of the bookkeeping is done at other locations, Dan’s secretary, Carol Spruill, runs her “control central” from a larger room just outside his office.
It was Sunday when we visited. Even though Spruill was off on this day, it was obvious she is a busy woman.
Her station is a wheeled secretary’s chair hemmed in by several desks. On the desks are several desktop computers, along with a couple of interestingly positioned potted plants.
Ward explains that she wheels her chair from one computer to the next, depending on what tasks she’s working on.
There is something about it that is reminiscent of a workstation on the “Starship Enterprise.” From this post she calls up and deals with information on separate computer systems for Pioneer, the peanut warehouses and the farm.