Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do Robotic Tractors Dream of Digital Cornfields?*

A farm implement company now offers an “AutonomousHarvest System” that requires no human operator for the tractor pulling the grain wagon. In another intriguing video, a huge international corporation shows its version of a future farm, complete with “Minority Report touch screens” as well as tractors equipped with multiple computers and a Siri voice that will contact your nearest mechanic before you even know the implement has a problem.  As I think back to my teen years when I shivered on a cabless tractor in cold drizzle, these Brave New World apps have definite appeal.

Last Monday after work, I drove to my brother’s farm to finish picking tomatoes and peppers in our family garden. The frenzy of a Midwest harvest lined the country roads. Farmers in huge machines left trails of dust across fields of corn and soybeans, and loaded wagons formed silhouettes against the glowing sunset. I reflected on harvests past, when the smell of diesel hung in the chilly air and the sound of grain bin dryers whined in the distance.

Dad met me in front of the old farmhouse and let me know that the cylinder head on the combine had bad bearings, so my brother was driving it in from the field. You can’t “take the farm off Dad” and as a matter of fact, you can’t take him off the farm either, so he still helps drive wagons during the harvest. “We’ve hauled nearly as much corn in the past few days as old Fred harvested during the entire fall of 1939,” Dad said. “He hired out to pick corn by hand for a neighbor and by Thanksgiving, he’d picked 4,400 bushels. Maybe 260,000 ears or so—by hand. Told me he got paid $175.”

My brother did what he could with the blown bearings, but today’s harvester machines look like science fiction transformers and cost as much as a quarter million dollars or more. By the time the mechanic came, we grabbed a flood light to go along with the patience that any farmer needs when quality harvesting time is ticking away. The last time I worked on tractors, disco music was in and Nixon was recently out, so they declined my offer to help with the mechanical surgery.  My brother eased me into an alternative move. “Maybe you could see what there is to eat in the house.” Mom’s fresh baked bread, hot pepper cheese, and a brew seemed to satisfy the wrench pullers.

In Ray Bradbury’s classic, Dandelion Wine, the cantankerous grandpa complains when a company develops lawn grass that will stop growing after reaching the perfect height and color. He wants to hear the mower, smell the freshly cut grass, and see the rogue dandelions that signify the start of summer. I reckon Bradbury didn’t mow as many lawns as I have, but I see his point.

Most farmers will continue searching for tech that makes their hard work safer, easier, and maybe more economical. They might sit at home—Captain Kirk style—at control panels as robotic machinery brings in the harvest. But some farmers will slip out to the fields, crunch on a soybean to see if it “tests well,” and turn off the tractor autopilot so they can drive the harvest home. We'll see if they develop robots that bring snacks and beer out to the machine shed. 
by dan gogerty (*title reference to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; photo from

Friday, September 21, 2012

Food Scares, Big Brother Veggies, and Zucchini Frappuccinos

Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, receives countless inquiries about the food we eat, and after hours of deep thought, he provides the road apples of knowledge that help fertilize the mind. This week, Doc addresses three troubling issues that keep us awake at night.

Dear Doc,
Seems a red alert comes out monthly with rice, apple juice, and red meat recently attacked by various scientific sounding studies. I can’t live on blueberries, Greek yogurt, and green tea alone. Should I pay attention to these warnings? Baffled in Baton Rouge

Dear Baffled,
I ignored food studies until a few years ago when they reported that a beer or two a day might be good for you. I cut that story out of the newspaper and framed it. Actually, I’m a big proponent of science and research, so I advise having a good look at any report. But check the methods, the source, and the slant. It’s also a good idea to follow the money. And be assured that a counter group will have an opposing report out in the following day or two. Search for credible, peer-reviewed research, the type done by groups like the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. And relax. Stress will kill you faster than a super-sized soda will. I advise that you eat sensibly and moderately. You’ll know what really makes you feel healthy—and no, it’s not a diet based on beer. Doc

Dear Doc,
The new food rules in school cafeterias have me in a tizzy. My teenage son says the feeble amount of calories makes him weak during football practice, and my third grade daughter came home with two cling peaches and a small head of cauliflower in her Hello Kitty backpack. She hid them so the teacher wouldn’t yell at her for not eating her allotment of fruits and veggies. My kids are starving while some Big Brother official forces ultra foodie fare at them.  Wasting Away in Wagga Wagga

Dear Wasted,
I haven’t gone through a cafeteria line since the 60s, but coincidentally, students were protesting about the food even back then. The curdled chunks of soured milk in those wax cartons and the white bread sandwiches with mellow yellow butter in them put me off dairy products for a spell, but I’ve recovered enough to become a real Got Milk Guy. Fish stick Friday was also a challenge if you were last in line because the golden brown planks became cold and soggy by the time you gobbed tartar sauce on them. However, I don’t make light of the current controversy. Kids need calories (what obesity epidemic?), and anyway, I hate to see students throwing fruit and veggies into the garbage. Maybe your children will acquire a taste for the new food. If not, pack some leftover pizza and Twinkies in a container and encourage them to protest peacefully. This link to a clever parody from a Kansas high school could give them some ideas. Doc

Dear Doc,
In the past year I’ve repeatedly read that by 2050 we farmers will need to double our food production to feed the expected nine billion global inhabitants. I’m worried. Should I plow up my conservation buffer strips to plant more corn, or should I just include a few extra zucchini plants next spring in my garden?     Dazed and Confused in Dyersville

Dear Confused,
I’ve hung around the back forty long enough to detect an ironic zucchini reference when I see one. But I must say, your zucchini option is actually the smarter of the two. I allow only three zucchini plants in my garden, but by July we’re hauling zukes the size of army bazookas to the house. Zucchini quesadillas are great with enough jalapenos, but have you had zucchini pancakes? Three days in a row? I predict that by 2050, the world will be inundated with House of Zucchini franchises. I’m already working on a zucchini frappuccino.  By the way, cut back on the we-gotta-feed-nine-billion hand wringing. I’m confident we humans will get smart and solve hunger problems with a combination of increased production (thoughtfully pursued), prudent conservation (keep your buffer strips), elimination of waste (a third of our food production is squandered), and more efficient distribution of the food we already produce. On the other hand, I’m keeping plan B on the burner. Wanna invest in my House of Zucchini?  Doc
by dan gogerty, photos from and

Friday, September 14, 2012

You’ve Got Mail—Maybe. Rural Post Offices in a Cyber Age

Update--April 2017:  
Dog attacks on postal workers surge with package delivery spike--it's "Dog Bite Prevention Week."

Earlier links: (1) This article/podcast looks at the future of the Postal Service. (2) This article from Harvest Media looks at how small towns will be affected by post office cutbacks, and  (3) this piece from the Daily Download gives a view about how the magazine industry will be impacted. The following blog is a look at some of the intangibles about letters, mail delivery, and rural post offices.

You Had Mail--The excitement of a special letter in the mailbox

During the summer of 1961 I turned eleven, and for several days in early July, I’d walk up the quarter-mile lane on our farm to check the mailbox. If the mail hadn’t arrived yet, I’d look to the north, watching for a vapor trail of dust rising along the gravel road. “Come on. Bring it today.” I was waiting for an envelope from the Minnesota Twins. Somehow I’d talked my parents into letting me order tickets for a game in Metropolitan Stadium—our nearest field of dreams, some five hours north.
Of course, it’s easier nowadays to print e-tickets for flights or send out a cyber birthday card complete with awkwardly posed family members. Communication is instant. That’s progress. But I still think communities will lose something if rural post offices close. It might be gradual. Saturday service fades. The postmaster is replaced by a part-timer. Eventually the building is carted away on some huge flatbed truck. It gets quiet on Main Street in Pleasantville when the Post Office floats away.
For some, the post office is a connection to the outside world. A small town deliverer might slow down for a bit of small talk. Shut-ins and the elderly often receive medicine by mail, and at times, postal workers have had to be medics for someone in need.  My brother walks a route in a college town and says he’s pleasantly surprised that young people still enjoy receiving real mail. “They may be surgically attached to their smart phones," he said, "but they still love getting a package from home.”
My brother knows the feeling. He was nineteen in army boot camp, and since we’re a family of letter writers, he scored big at mail call. “I loved it,” he says, “but there’s a downside. The drill sergeant got sick of hearing my name called, so he started making me drop and do push-ups for each new letter. And when Mom sent a package of cookies, well, I’d be lucky to keep more than two for myself.”
Postal blood runs deep in our family. For years, my parents have sent out two hundred or more newsletters each month. Dad writes a down-home letter about family, friends, and rural life—Mom does the mailing. “Self-sealing envelopes and sticky stamps saved my tongue,” she said. These two had set up their own snail-mail twittersphere well before Ashton Kutcher was out of diapers.
My other brother is the postal road warrior of the family. Early in the morning, he sorts mail in a small town with a crew of joke-telling Cliff Clavins. Then he hits the trail ready for dust, deer, mud, manure spreaders, and whatever else rural roads throw at him. Rural carriers can be the main contact for those on remote farms. A bachelor farmer might meet for a short chat or stand at the box waiting for a much-needed item he’s ordered. My brother noticed one elderly widow didn’t get her mail, so he checked the house, and in the end had to make that final, sad call to the authorities.  “That was tough,” he said. “People have fallen or are sick and need help, but things can be light-hearted too.”
At holiday time, he has found cookies or even apple crisp and milk in the mail box.  “Another time I opened the box, and a big pigeon stared back at me. Took me a while to get it out. I eventually saw Steve and Gerald watching from behind the shed, laughing their butts off.”
I’m sure the postal system is in for more changes. I just hope that even in this cyber age, everyone gets a chance to receive a meaningful letter, a hand-written birthday card, or a package with something special in it.
Oh yeah, the Minnesota Twins beat the Cleveland Indians 4-3 on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth. But the image I see most clearly from that summer is an open mailbox at the top of a dusty lane. An official-looking envelope containing baseball tickets sits there with my name on it.  by dan gogerty (photo from blogworld)
Opinion about the postal closings and a look at how much post offices are valued in small towns
Small town news story about retiring postmaster
Previous CAST blog, Twittering with Stamps and Envelopes