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Iowa bound

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Hart Parr tractor on display in Penefield, IL.

Hart Parr tractor on display in Penefield, IL.

As Chair of the museum’s Division of Work and Industry I don’t get out much. I mostly read books on history, inspect the occasional artifact being offered to the museum, visit museums where our objects are on loan, and go to lots of meetings. When the United Soybean Board heard about our plans to feature agriculture in the American Enterprise exhibition they challenged me to leave my comfy chair and travel to Iowa. While there, I could attend the Farm Progress Show, see what’s new in equipment, learn about precision farming, and experience farm life.

Roy Bardole explains soybean disease

My host Roy Bardole and I started our tour of the immense Farm Progress Show at the Pioneer Hi-Bred tent. People tried to get him to take off his Hill Seed hat (a competitor) with an offer of a Pioneer hat replacement but Roy didn’t cave to the pressure. The Pioneer displays were filled with interesting technical information but my favorite item was a container of five-bean soybean pods (they are as rare as four leaf clovers). The seed companies promise to increase crop yields by hybridizing plants to produce more five-bean pods.

Roy and Phyllis Bardole

While in Iowa I stayed with Roy and Phyllis Bardole. They farm over a thousand acres in Rippey planted in soybeans and corn.

Iowa Traffic

The Farm Progress Show is very popular. Traffic on Highway 17 was made one way but even so the traffic jam getting into the show grounds was intense.

After leaving the Pioneer tent, Roy and I wandered around for a while but soon headed over to the John Deere area to check out the company’s innovations in precision farming. Just as navigation systems in modern automobiles can tell a lost driver how to reach their destination, the GPS systems in farm equipment gathers information and links it to a specific location. At harvest time a farmer can use this technology to determine exactly what part of the field has the highest or lowest yield rate and gain insight as to why. Comparing the harvest data to soil analysis, fertilizer application, and other information provides great opportunity for increasing production. The GPS equipment can also steer the tractor and save materials by signaling the planter head or sprayer nozzles to shut off.

One of my goals for attending the Farm Progress was to figure out whether precision farming is marketing hype or real. I chatted with the John Deere employees who were manning the demonstration consoles but didn’t get very far. You can imagine the look you would get if you walked into a Chevrolet dealership and asked the sales personnel whether people use cars. A little frustrated, I gave up and climbed into the cab of a shiny green tractor – branding is important and everything made by John Deere is bright green.

Here I am examining the electronic controls of a 345 horsepower John Deere 8r tractor.

Here I am examining the electronic controls of a 345 horsepower John Deere 8r tractor.

Our next stop was the Case/IH display which made Roy happy as he uses their equipment. He of course told me the classic International Harvester adage: If it’s green it’s grass but if it’s red it’s a tractor (Case equipment is always painted a deep red while Deere equipment is bright green). Nothing was going on at the stage but we did see a huge plexi-glass container of competitors’ hats. We could only imagine the process used to encourage people to give up their hats but clearly company headgear was one of the battle grounds of the Farm Progress Show.

Equipment and seed dealers alike try to install brand loyalty with logo hats.

Equipment and seed dealers alike try to install brand loyalty with logo hats.

The GPS demonstration at the Case/IH display

The GPS demonstration at the Case/IH display

The Case/IH display on GPS was perfect for me and the company representative was very patient. He walked me through the process and explained the virtues of the system. The technology offers some real opportunities, but it will take visits to working farms to find out whether the innovations are being widely adopted and impacting the culture of farming.

Where do you think I should go next?

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    About the Author

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    Peter LiebholdPeter Liebhold is the Chair of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Learn more about the exhibition team.View all posts by Peter Liebhold

    • Amanda Gustin

      It would be extremely interesting to take a look at farms that are developing CSA-style economic support structures, creating community and lowering their risk through subscriptions. It’s not fancy or technological, but it is a great example of “enterprise”! As a New Englander, I would suggest you head to Vermont to explore that subject. Contact State Representative Chris Bray, who does a lot of work with sustainable, local agriculture.