Business of agriculture has gone high-tech, producers say
The medium-sized brick house in Benson might appear as an ordinary home until you go around to the back yard.
That’s where the Johnson family has been farming for generations and still going strong. Last week, Kelby Johnson, a recent Utah State University graduate, pointed out with pride all that the Johnson family does here. On the 100-acre farm, four acres are devoted to produce and the rest is devoted to dairy, alfalfa and soft white wheat.
Then there’s the high tunnel building used to plant cool-crops during the summer — lettuce, mixed lettuce, spinach, cilantro, radishes and basil. Here, water is sprayed on the crops automatically; the noise of the air conditioner is audible; and the plastic that serves as a wall for the tunnel makes the blue sky translucent.
Johnson said that lettuce is not usually grown in Cache Valley, but his family is trying it because “the market is growing and people are starting to realize local (produce) is important.”
Growing lettuce is just an example of some of the changes that have occurred in Cache Valley farming over the last several decades. Johnson, in addition to other farmers who have been in the agriculture business for much longer, admit that the changes in farming have been astronomical — whether it’s deciding which crops to grow, how to market them on the equipment that’s used in day-to-day operations.
“They used to say, ‘if you can’t be anything else, be a farmer’ — not true now,” said Gary Clawson of Hyrum, who owns Clawson and Sons Dairy with his two sons, Michael and Jared. “(The farmer today) has got to be a business man and he’s got to be smart, or he’s gone.”
Johnson says there are farmers who are keeping up with the changes in agriculture, while others are “overwhelmed.”
“I think it depends on the farmer, and in Cache Valley, for example, you’ve got both ends of the spectrum,” Johnson said. “Some farmers are very proactive and very forward-thinking. Then you’ve got some farmers who are farming the same way they did in the 1940s. But those are the farmers that die; eventually the ones that stay up with technology will take over.”
Deciding what to grow
Today, the main crops in Cache Valley are corn, wheat and barley, and alfalfa. The dairy industry also has its stamp on Cache Valley, going into milk, cheese, and ice cream products to be sold locally, nationally or worldwide.
But some 40 years ago, Cache Valley used to plant “acres and acres” of peas, beets and potatoes, Clawson said. But those companies went out of business.
The economic conditions are not always directly related to what farmers decide to grow.
“Everyone has to eat, good or bad,” Johnson said. “What effects commodity market is usually politics. Supply and demand.”
Alfalfa farms don’t generally market their product because it only goes to feed cattle and is not sold to the public, Clawson said.
But on the Johnson family farm, where they grow produce, it’s an entirely different ballgame. The farm has an up-and-coming website, a Facebook page, prints articles for newsletters, and can be found at the farmers’ market every Saturday from May to October at Merlin Olsen Park in Logan.
“We love to be there and inform people about agriculture and help people understand the trials we go through,” Johnson said. “After all, people have to eat.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to marketing produce, along with it comes other people’s “false notions” about agriculture, Johnson said.
“I feel like there’s animosity where people don’t trust the farmer or believe that we really care,” Johnson said. “And there’s very few farmers in the world that don’t care about the land they run. They think we’re just there to take advantage of the resource but really we’re there to take care of the resource because it takes care of us. We want to take care of it.”
He also said politicians both at the federal level and in the Utah Legislature are not helping the public’s perception of farming. He cited laws passed by the Legislature “that make it hard to farm.”
The false notions are getting worse, Johnson said, and the advent of the Internet and social networking has fed into that.
“I think farmers need to step out into the limelight. Being a farmer I think that’s a hard thing to do,” Johnson said. “We don’t like that limelight, we have a lot to do, we don’t necessarily have the time to stop and visit with everybody, but we need to; we really need to. Our livelihood and our children, our future all depends on it.”
Most products in people’s everyday lives come from agriculture, Johnson said. Whether it’s shirts — made from cotton — or car seats — made from soy beans and corn.
Virtually everything in agriculture is computerized.
Most state-of-the-art tractors in 2012 contain a GPS system that enables farmers to plant and spray pesticides on a field within one inch of the prescribed satellite route. The system automatically steers the tractor and there’s a computer and color screen in the cab that monitors everything from speed to distance traveled, and can also operate the field equipment under tow.
It allows farmers to seed and treat their fields more efficiently, use less fuel and reap bigger harvests. Plus, they’re more efficient and produce more power, Johnson said.
The Johnsons use a computerized tractor from their neighbor, but hope to get their own on the farm soon.
Clawson has eight major pieces of equipment on his alfalfa farm, including tractors, swathers, bailers, and a combine. He said he cut 80 to 100 acres of hay the other night. He made 330 bales, weighing 1,300 pounds, in five hours.
And best of all, it was all done in his air-conditioned cab, Clawson laughed.
“Today you just press a button, it’s all automatic,” Clawson said. “The only thing I have to do is keep my hands on the steering wheel to steer.”
But more physical labor years ago has traded itself in for money — and lots of it, Clawson said. His eight pieces of equipment cost approximately $1 million.
Today, big corporations are expanding upon their own farms far mass production of their products, even going as for to “buy up their neighbors’ farms,” Clawson said. One good example is (J.R.) Simplot, a large agribusiness firm that produces frozen potatoes, vegetables, fertilizers, seeds, agriculture services and beef cattle. The closest plant is in Boise, Idaho, Clawson said.
Just as the corporate farms are expanding, family farm operations should follow suit, Clawson said.
“You have to get bigger and bigger to stay in the business; you cannot just stay where you’re at because the equipment is costing more and more,” Clawson said.
Johnson and Clawson both agreed that a post-secondary education is essential to the future of the agriculture industry. Johnson’s grandfather had no schooling and his father only obtained a high school diploma.
“With my generation you’re going to see the majority of farmers come back with a degree,” Johnson said. “Most of what we learned has been passed down from generation to generation, but (since agriculture) is advancing so fast and your profit margin is so small, you need to be able to understand stuff and find the small things that will make you more profitable.”
Despite dramatic changes in the farming industry over the years, the majority of farms are still family-owned.
“It just gets in your blood; you can’t help it,” Johnson said. “That’s what your dad and your grandpa and your great-grandpa did. It’s just a way of life.”