Thursday, September 25, 2014

Virtual Farms and Real Sunsets

Many farmers in our neck of the woods own smartphones, so I suppose you can find a plethora of harvest time selfies—me in the cab of my computerized combine; me unloading corn that has been analyzed by Big Data; me with a robotic tractor approaching in the background. As this article explains, a tractor that maps a field, drives itself, and precisely calibrates its movements within inches to minimize waste is nearly ready to become standard equipment.
I imagine these devices will improve yields, efficiency, and maybe even safety. A robotic tractor pulling a grain wagon up to the combine is probably more reliable than we teens were when we drove cab-less tractors and unloaded grain with our thoughts on the high school dance coming up that night. But unlike us, a robot can’t yet hum the Easybeats’ “I Got Friday on My Mind.”
Farmers have apps to help them with markets, weather, and soil conditions. This Farm Journal survey clues us into the ten apps that farmers most favor. Folks who are not net connected can ignore the buzz or slide into App Envy—an anxiety complex that comes when you think everyone else is digitally tuned into the newest thing, while you’re still trying to remember your password to access voice mail messages on your archaic cell phone.
On the other hand, any Luddite farmers are less likely to suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Studies indicate that some smartphone users feel electric vibrations in their pockets even when there is no phone there. It’s like they’ve had something surgically removed but they think it’s still there. No worries—someone will figure out an app for that.
When it comes to farming, maybe apps will soon be obsolete. The DesMoines Register has moved into the virtual reality realm with their Harvest of Change project. It centers on a farm run by four generations of the same family. Apparently you can strap on an Oculus headset and explore an exact reconstruction of the farm using a keyboard or an Xbox controller by turning your head from side to side. The virtual environment serves as a way to navigate through multimedia content, and you “walk around” the farm, accessing various icons--360-degree videos, archival photographs, and short passages about farming in modern-day America.
The next step will be a real farmer at a digital command center performing a virtual harvest that has real results—really! I guess I’d rather manipulate a keyboard than grip the frozen steering wheel of our old John Deere 4020 or shovel corn on top of a wagon as the north wind whips in. During Iowa corn harvests, you could be virtually (or actually) dead on your feet from dust, cold, and constant struggles with uncooperative machinery.
Then again, that farmer in a computer command room will miss a few things. Grain moves into wagons and into bins with the sound of satisfaction, the white noise of a job well done. Harvest time gives off its own fragrance of dying plants mixed with tractor fumes and the ever-present smell of the Good Earth. And autumn provides color—fields turn to a sepia tint while trees flare out in orange, yellow, and red. Harvest dust floats along the horizon at dusk, and the slow-motion silhouettes of geese winging south turn the sunset into an interactive portrait.
I suppose there’s a virtual farm system somewhere that could incorporate all these images, but I’m not much into wearing a Darth Vadar style helmet to get there. It’s a good time of year to log off, power down, and take a walk in the reality of a farm at harvest time.  

by dan gogerty (top photo from Pinterest, bottom from USDA)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hitchhiking--with Robots, Road Warriors, and Ghosts from the Past

Update August 2015: 
Hitchhiking Robot in the USA--Ouch 
HitchBOT the robot was created to hitchhike across countries. After having success in Germany and Canada, the robot came to the United States but the journey was short-lived. Scott Pelley tells of HitchBOT's demise in the City of Brotherly Love.

My hitchhiking days stretched from Ohio to Iowa--with interludes in Ireland, Wales, and a few other European countries. Recent articles help me remember my on-the-road travels: HitchBOT made a happier trip in Canada (see article below); film director John Waters wrote a hitchhiking book called Carsick; and a new article looks at the demise of the "era of good feeling" hitchhiking.

Assuming you won’t be making a sign and heading for the entrance ramp, hitch a virtual ride with the following links:

** HitchBot the Canadian robot made it across the country—and even “kept its friends and family up to date along the way”—as futuristically weird as that sounds.

** This historical site looks at the Depression era when people with little money found new ways of getting around. Hitching a ride in a car or truck gained in popularity—and a subculture grew.

In this era, hitching is not so much “road less traveled”--maybe a bit more “road warrior mentality”--but it still has nostalgic appeal for some. If I try again, I'd need a sign: I doubt something like "Old Dude Heading West" would help much, but possibly "Traveling to See My Grandkids" would get a sympathy ride. Or maybe I could dress up as a Canadian robot and see what happens. I probably wouldn't hitch through Philly. 

Looking back through 40 years of fog, the romance of the road seems appealing at times, but I’m probably too old to write “the hitchhiker’s guide to finding your lost youth.”

by dan gogerty (pic from

Monday, September 22, 2014

Environment News Includes Marches, Waste, and Donuts

Folks used to sit on the porch shootin’ the breeze. For many now, the porch is a cubicle and the breeze is digital. These are a few of the stories floating around our cyber porch today—and they focus on the environment.

Marches and Summits:  As a U.N. summit on climate change approaches, thousands of people marched in cities around the world Sunday to urge their leaders to act boldly to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the changes.

Waste and Want:  Harvest Media offers six insightful articles about food, waste, and the environment. One source claims that approximately 40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted.

Donuts and the Forests:  Environmentalists say two major doughnut chains got a little sweeter as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Brands both made commitments to source palm oil for frying their goodies from suppliers who are not clear-cutting forests.

cartoon from

Friday, September 12, 2014

Walking Beans, Marketing Grain, and Crunching Numbers

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology has a close association with Iowa State University, and a key aspect is the intern program. Students receive valuable experience (and some monetary benefits) in the areas of agriculture, finance, and communications. CAST benefits by having talented students bring new ideas and enthusiasm to the organization. Collete joined the CAST staff in August.

From Beans to Business, CAST’s New Intern Stays Focused on Her Goals

Collete Haag might be the only sophomore at Iowa State University with a certain archaic skill listed on her resume—Bean Walking 101. From the age of eight, she joined her dad and others to perform the classic weed pulling ritual in soybean fields—a task that has become nearly extinct since Round Up and other herbicides swept in. “I also loved riding the tractor with Dad.  We didn’t have many animals—a few chickens and a peacock that went astray—but I’m happy I grew up on a farm.”
Collete appreciates her farm roots, and an internship at CAST seems to be a smooth way to keep that connection. “I like the ag-related nature of CAST’s mission statement,” she said, “and according to my job description, I’ll be able to get plenty of financial experience.”
Rural living may be in her roots, but Collete has her goals set on some heavy-duty number crunching. She is majoring in accounting, and even though the certification sounds challenging, she is bound and determined to achieve her CPA accreditation. She even used a summer internship to further her progress. “I worked with MaxYield Cooperative, and I was lucky enough to be involved with grain marketing and hedging. Oh yes, an internal audit, too.”
Not everyone would want to spend summer days wrestling with audit figures, but Collete keeps things balanced with her ISU activities. She is the treasurer of the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, and she continues her high school sports talents (softball, basketball, and volleyball) by participating in college intramurals. And like many of her fellow students, she spends  weekends supporting Cyclone football and other ISU teams.
Collete is proud to come from a place where the nearest town—Ledyard, Iowa—has a population of 128. “But it still has a bank, an annual tractor pull, and a community fundraising supper that includes a secret recipe for the chicken.” We suspect Collete’s abilities to work with finance and numbers might take her off the farm, but if bean walking ever comes back into fashion, we know where to find a talented worker. CAST staff members welcome her to the organization and look forward to working with her.
by dan gogerty