As a pair of F-18 Super Hornets from nearby Lemoore Naval Air Station buzzed the recent precision ag field day at Ted Sheely's Kings County farm, the apostle of the emerging new age of farming expects to see the technology in those supersonic jet on his farm some day.
“What we are talking about today at this field day is what was in military jets 10 years ago,” said Sheely. “I cannot wait for the next 10 years.”
Sheely is an unabashed supporter of precision farming technology and he is attracting followers. Some of the largest and most progressive farmers in the Central San Joaquin Valley were at Sheely's place to see and hear about the latest in precision farming.
The numbers generated from the multitude of commercial trials on Sheely's farm leave little doubt precision ag technology is a good investment for reducing costs and increasing yields. Why then are there seemingly few besides Sheely riding the space age farm rocket?
“It's the intimidation factor,” said Sheely. Most growers who talk to him about his experiences with precision farming are uncomfortable with computer-age farming.
“A lot of guys tell me they have a hard time figuring out how to get their e-mail and computer-driven tractors scare them,” said Sheely.
“I am not a computer wizard by any means. I do OK on a computer. I can download aerial maps — if someone shows me how,” said Sheely.” I tell guys who ask me about precision ag that there are consultants and companies who do the work, they do the mapping, they do the interpretation to help you make the decisions. There are custom applicators to do the variable rate applications.”
The second question is reliability. Computers can be cantankerous in an air conditioned office. Putting one in a dusty, bouncing tractor cab doesn't seem wise. However, Sheely says reliability has been good. “I throw more belts and have flat tires more often than I have computers or tractor guidance systems go down.
“Support has been excellent with the products I have bought,” he said. “All of the companies have technical support people who speak Spanish and can tell my guys what they need to do to get back running. It is usually simply a matter of going to a diagnostic screen and doing what the technical people say to do.”
Most of Sheely's employees have cell phones and can call directly from a tractor to get help. The days when drivers flashed lights from tractors in the field to signal there is a problem are over. “Nearly every one of my guys has a cell phone, and they just call if they need something,” said Sheely.
Precision ag technology can also be intimidating to workers, who believe computers will replace their time-honed skills.
“It took about a year for my guys to accept this new technology. Now they know what it can do and don't want to go back to the old way we did things,” said Sheely. Workers have discovered that this new technology makes them more efficient and tasks less tiring.
Employee profit sharing
Sheely has a profit sharing plan for his employees and when a guidance system or computer goes down “they are on the phone right away to me or someone else to get it fixed. They know that a lot of this stuff we now use makes us more efficient.”
The cost savings and yield increases coming out of the Ag 20/20 project at Sheely's farm are impressive. Savings of up to 50 percent on costs and double digit yield increases are difficult for some farmers to accept.
“A lot of guys ask me if I am certain about the numbers we are getting from this work. I tell them that these are numbers confirmed by independent, third party scientists. These are not salesmen's numbers,” said Sheely.
However, Sheely hastens to add that while the successes have been impressive, their have been failures.
“You don't see the charts about what did not work, and we have made some bad decisions in this project. We expected that from the beginning,” said Sheely.
“I told everyone going in that if I spend $1, I expect to get at least $1.50 back or it is not worth continuing. I am not interested in spending $1 and getting 80 cents back.”
Sheely's advice to his peers is to start with mapping for salinity and applying variable gypsum rates. “I know that will pay for just about anybody,” he added.
The work at Sheely's farm has focused primarily on cotton since financial support for the project has come from the National Cotton Council and Cotton Incorporated.
“We are starting to look at some of this on processing tomatoes and garlic. We are going to start mapping the pistachio trees. It has uses in weed control — any place where site specific farming makes sense,” he said.
The cost of farming will force farmers to look at 60 by 60 foot grids for variability rather than 160 acres, half sections or sections.
“Precision ag technology does not make farming any easier. It simply gives us more tools with which to make decisions,” said Sheely.