Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Who Digitally Enhanced the Harvest?

Update, Nov. 2015: Virtual Reality and Farming
Big data and precision agriculture are influencing the farm scene, and some think virtual reality (VR) is next. A VR experience drops the viewer into the midst of the film--you feel like a character who can interact.

Technophiles debate the potential impact of new VR gear that will be available in 2016 from Facebook, Samsung, and Google. But most agree the content is key--and agriculture will certainly play a part. Last year, this project used emerging VR technology and 360-degree video to tell the story of a farm family.

This story also focuses on virtual reality and agriculture: We won’t need to travel the world to see how farmers in other countries are doing things--quick, virtual tours will give us the gist of things.

I'm all for common sense conveniences, but farm tech changes can almost be overwhelming. As this article says, "Farms of the Future Will Run on Robots and Drones." And this piece describes German farmers using driverless, satellite-guided machines in their fields.

On the other hand, when I sat frozen and tired on a 1960s cabless tractor, I was not a robot---but maybe a zombie. And the work wasn't virtual--it was real. Here's a look at some images from 

harvesting in those days of yesteryear...

I drove back to the old home farm a couple of times during the past few weeks, and as the brown corn stalks disappeared and the combine dust settled, I watched a changing portrait of the traditional Midwest harvest unfold. It’s like modern photography. You click a quick pic of the grandkids and look down at your tiny digital camera or smartphone and wonder—when did this happen? Where did the film, viewfinder, and manual focus go? You drive the Midwest country roads at harvest time and think—where are the people, the smoke billowing tractors, the livestock in the fields?

This is not a lament, just an observation. Tech and economics have Photoshopped the traditional Grant Wood farm scenes, and as Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is.” 

As you cruise the gravel roads, the first thing you notice is the lack of farms.  A country section that included three or four traditional farms—two-story house, barn, hog house, shed—now has one or two at most. Fewer farm kids wave as they carry feed buckets to the chicken coop; a family milk cow rarely stands near the barn chewing its cud; and those skinny dogs that used to shoot out of the lanes to chase your car as you drove by are now sitting passively in suburban yards contained by "invisible fences."

Fields have an altered tinge to them too. Combines look like Star Wars military equipment, and grain is augured into huge semi trailer trucks. You don’t see folks out in the elements so often. Not many farmers with padded coveralls and ear-flap hats sit on cabless tractors as they lean into a November wind and try to stay warm from the heat radiating out of the canvas heat-houser. With companies developing robotic machines, you might eventually need to go to a farmer’s computer control room in his office to see a human.

Animals also make fewer outdoor appearances. Some cattle still forage in the harvested fields for dropped ears of corn, but even in Iowa, the hog capital of the world, a resident can drive the roads for months without seeing a Wilbur, Babe, or Porky. Pigs used to root in the fields until the snows came, but most have moved into confinement motels—bit crowded, but the room service is attractive, and even hogs appreciate central heating. No comments from them about the indoor toilets.

It might even be tough to find a pitch fork on a Photoshopped farm. Watered-down manure gets hauled to those freshly harvested fields in gigantic honey wagons, and the “fecal gold” gets injected into the ground. I remember pulling conventional manure spreaders that flung the solids, and early liquid tanks that sprayed the contents. With an ill-advised turn and a sudden wind gust, the tractor driver could be fertilized as well.

The piece most obviously airbrushed from the harvest portrait is the farm corn crib. These slatted buildings would store and dry the ear corn until months later when a “sheller man” brought his machine. We’d rake and shovel ear corn into the huge contraption, and it would fling cobs into a pile and kernels of corn into wagons. When we were kids, the hard work of moving corn was sometimes interrupted by a mad scramble to take care of the rodents that had taken up residence in the corn crib. The mouse that scurried up the inside of my coverall pant leg made it to just above the knee before I could grab him and “persuade him” to go no further. After a hard day, the sheller man towed his machine back to town, Dad drove the last load of corn to the elevator, and we’d play king of the hill on a cob pile.

When the autumn sun sets over barren corn stubble and a harvest moon reflects light off metal grain bins, today's farmers take pride in completing a harvest on some of the most bountiful land in the world. The modern portrait of their labors includes hard work aided by technological advances and improved production techniques. But most don’t get the pleasure of walking cornfields to pick up the many ears of corn a rusty four-row picker left. Few get to haul bales of hay to cattle in the pasture or break the thin ice that coats their water tanks. And modern farmers miss out on the stimulation you get when you peel your frozen hands from the steering wheel of a John Deere 4020 after driving it from the field in below-freezing temperatures.

I get nostalgic for those harvest days, but I’m starting to think it would have been nice to “Photoshop” some of those images way back then. Maybe if I could have airbrushed out my static-filled transistor radio and digitally added a heated cab and sound system to my tractor, I might have been more in tune as I hauled corn and hummed along with the Stones singing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” by dan gogerty (cornfield pic from gwendolynday.blogspot.com and corn crib pic from mikehedge.blogspot.com)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thanksgiving and the Real Black Friday

Update--November 2015: 

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s 30th annual informal price survey of classic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table indicates the average cost of this year’s feast for 10 is $50.11, a 70-cent increase from last year’s average of $49.41. That's about $5 a person. If you compare the menu items to what you’d get for $5 at most fast food places, you’d about have to say, “I’m lovin’ it.”

And you might want to check this out: How A Food Scientist Cooks Thanksgiving.

I looked up the prices for 1961. I was eleven years old then, sitting at a long, crowded table in Granny Faye’s house. She wasn’t much for hosting events, but even after my grandpa died, she kept up the Thanksgiving tradition. Apparently back then she could buy turkey at 35 cents a pound, potatoes at 8 cents a pound, and two cans of pumpkin for 29 cents.

Texts, Tweets, Snap Chats Were Analog at Granny's Table

Granny’s two sons both farmed within a half mile of the home place. Farms were closer together then, and these were filled with kids—fourteen between the two families. Most of us were boys growing up under the influence of Moe, Larry, and Curly, but we managed to sit quietly during the prayer, and we appreciated the accordion-paper turkeys and pumpkins that made up the table d├ęcor. No one wrote texts or tweets as we shaped our mashed potatoes into lake beds for the gravy. Our only snap chats were when one of us would flick a small roll at a brother and call him a dork--only done when parents weren't looking.  

We had no noon football games on the black and white TV, but cousin Terry might have a beat up pigskin on his lap. We were itching to get outside to play ball—what kid really likes cranberry sauce anyway? A promise of pumpkin pie is the only thing that kept us from bolting.

I have little recall of the meal chatter, but Granny might inform us that turkeys were not always the guest of honor at Thanksgiving. “Back then,” she’d say, “we used to butcher and dress barnyard chickens for the feast. Not much fun steaming and plucking feathers on a chilly morning.” We kids had been present at poultry harvest times, so a cousin might start describing the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off ritual until he was shushed. Grossing each other out was a national pastime for us boys at that age, but the Thanksgiving table was not prime territory for it.

As the autumn sun shone through the large south windows, Dad might point out, “Even though today is perfect for football, we’ve seen Thanksgivings when the ground was covered with snow. When I was about your age, the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard surprised us all. Farmers were caught out in the cornfields, hunters were nearly frozen to death in duck blinds, and chickens were stuck solid to their roosts. No weather forecasts to warn us back then.” Even at that age, I’d seen a Thanksgiving or two when the creek banks were lined with thin ice, and the morning sun lit up frost that coated woven wire fences and corn stalks left in the field after the harvest. 

Football, Chores, Brown Thursday, and Black Friday

But today had the brilliant light of a slanting autumn sun, and as soon as we hit the yard, it was all pass, run, argue, punt, fumble, and argue some more as we conveniently ignored the fact that someone was cleaning up after the big event. Back then, adults were like benevolent extraterrestrials who usually stayed in their own universe—until chore time.

“The cow needs milkin’,” some galactic overlord would announce. “And the steers in the lot across the road need five buckets of grain and eight bales of hay.” No holiday shopping excuses to save us. The advertizing Madmen of the 60s hadn’t come up with Black (and Blue) Friday Frenzy, which is now morphing into Thanksgiving Brown Thursday (as these comedians satirize). We were bright enough kids, but the word “shopping” was not in our vocabulary, and  merchants back then didn’t even think of hoisting Christmas on us until Thanksgiving was over.

The day was for celebrating family, and the harvest, and kids playing outside in the sunshine or the snow. And the evening was for eating the meal that I liked best—the leftovers. Dark turkey meat, warmed-up dressing with gravy on it, Mom’s homemade bread, a slice of pumpkin pie—living was easy. Until the morning after Thanksgiving.

We’re trudging up the lane toward the yellow school bus that stops in a cloud of gravel dust and dread. In a tryptophan stupor and laden with books and gym clothes, I climb aboard the not-so-magic bus and plop down in a cold seat next to a lanky high school kid with a comb in his pocket and a sneer on his face. Now that’s what I call a real Black Friday.  
by dan gogerty (turkey pic from blogher.com; school bus pic from schoolbusdriver.org)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wanted: A Dog Owner Whisperer

What is it about dogs? I grew up running pastures and playing in snow banks with several good farm dogs, but jobs and travel have kept me from owning dogs since, so I marvel at what people will do for a dog that, for all intents and purposes, has become a member of the family.

Pass the mustard and ketchup, please.
It hit me again this week. A work colleague gave us a humorous but concerned account about her sixteen-year-old cockapoo that ate a sock. Decision time. Spend hundreds of dollars on an endoscopy, get an X-ray to learn if the sock was on the move, or just wait to see if everything works out all right in the end.  At press time, the saga continues, but option three is the choice so far.

Another colleague not only raises dogs, she trains them for the “best in show” circuit. As she points out, owners are willing to spend thousands on obedience training—from the traditional “drill sergeant” style to a newer “positive reinforcement” method. I’m not sure the soft approach would have worked on our farm. “Come here please, Bruno. I know you’re just trying to show your affection for our barn cat, but I think it’s time to release him from your jaws. That’s it; good boy.”

A college student working with us reports that her family has six dogs on their Illinois farm. “One for each family member,” she says. “They aren’t ‘house dogs,’ but they definitely become part of our family. I grew up playing hide and seek with my dog.”

Speaking of farm dogs, my sister and her husband have a menagerie at their place. The dogs have performed acts of bravery with cantankerous cows, acts of near-tragedy by tangling with a farm implement (that led to a hefty vet bill), and acts of stupidity by sparring with skunks (who knew that car washes now double as pet washes). But their dogs have personality. Bertie, a Great Dane, sits in the truck like an old tobacco chewin’ farmer riding shotgun, and on Friday nights, she travels to the folks’ home place for the weekly bout of cards, “tonicas,” and tacos. She basically just lies on the floor, eats, and drools, but that can be said about certain humans I’ve spent Friday evenings with also.

What really got me into this dog mood was an article by Baxter Black: “The Right Dog for the Right Occasion.” He explains that dogs have different personalities depending on geography and breed. As he says, “Subtle does not describe deep south dogs. If Border Collies are like firing rubber bullets at your stock, Hound Dogs are like chasing them with a backhoe. They push, spook, and scare cows along, rather than coaxing them.”

As with many folks from rural backgrounds, Mr. Black has an obvious love of dogs. I looked back at a blog I wrote earlier this year—“Many ‘Best in Show’ Dogs Live Down on the Farm”—and it makes me think I really do have a soft spot for old Smoky and Frisky, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that a dog is part of my family.

So maybe I could take on a different role—maybe I should learn to be a “Dog Owner Whisperer.” How hard could it be? I’d just meet clients regularly to assure them that “yes, dogs are people too. You’re no more crazy than any other loving dog owner.”  Then again, maybe the job would necessitate some deeper research at times. Does anyone know if socks are biodegradable?  by dan gogerty  (photo from tumblr.com)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Do Cartoon Pigs Produce Animated Manure?

Update Sept. 26, 2013: 

How a Children’s Cartoon Damaged Japanese Agriculture:  In the 1970s, a  popular anime on TV in Japan called Araiguma Rasukaru portrayed a kid and his adorable raccoon sidekick—and it led to a serious invasive species situation.

The Animated Battle for Agricultural Hearts and Minds

In the classic Road Runner cartoons, the formula was simple and the outcome a certainty. Coyote’s attempts would fail because of his hair-brained schemes and his propensity to purchase faulty equipment from Acme. In the 60s, we kids saw Road Runner beep-beep his way down the road, while Coyote had to peel himself off the bottom of a two-ton safe.  We had no trouble figuring out the plot, characters, and theme—after all, by ten years of age, we had refined our analytical skills by watching hours of the Three Stooges.

In this digital age, cartoons aren’t so simple. Cable cartoon networks hype superheroes, animated apps for smart phones offer angry birds, and satire has grown bolder since the start of the Simpsons two decades ago.

So I am not surprised that the world of agriculture now features cartoons in the battle for hearts and minds. Various companies, organizations, and interest groups use animation to sway opinions about many topics, but the specific cartoons I ran across recently involved hog production. A well-presented blog called “Agriculture Proud” provides links to two cartoons intended for the kiddies. These short segments have opposite views about how farmers should raise pigs.

**  In A Pig’s Tail, HSUS provides what they call “a short but compelling animated film about a pig’s perspective of factory farming.” 

**  In Farming, the Ohio Bacon Farmers Organization “invites you to see why we raise pigs in barns and how farming has changed over the years.” This is a very short segment, but related videos are available at this same YouTube site.

The blog writer makes it clear he is not a fan of HSUS, and he thinks the public gets barraged with misconceptions about farming.  Activist groups seem to think the same thing—from the opposite view.  Most adults could watch cartoons and form an opinion, but I wonder if such messages have much effect on children.

My two brothers and I logged up many hours watching Popeye gobble spinach to enhance his powers. Some sources say this cartoon series increased spinach sales, but I don’t think it affected our farm dinner routine. “Please, Mom, we’re dyin’ for more spinach,” did not replace our usual “Pass the gravy” or “Ouch! Tom flicked a pea at my head.”

And now that I look back on it, we may have missed the underlying themes in Road Runner, too. Apparently its creator was satirizing Tom and Jerry cartoons and others like it. Could it be that when the coyote gets blown up by his own booby trap, we were supposed to recognize meaningful symbolism?

By the time we were eleven or twelve years old, Dad proclaimed Saturday mornings officially “unplugged,” so our cartoon watching started to fade as we spent more time cleaning the barn and hog house. Cantankerous sows and noisy baby pigs provided the soundtrack as we dug pitchforks into manure, hauled feed to pens, and spread straw for bedding.  I’d rather have worked in the cartoon versions of “Hog Life for Dummies” –where the sun is always beaming, the pigs are shiny pink, and the buildings never need to be mucked out. by dan gogerty (cartoon from govloop.com)