UTICA FARMER USES HIGH TECH DATA TO IMPROVE FAMILY FARM

Justin Durdan is a younger farmer, father of four, and volunteer farmer leader for the Illinois Corn Growers Association.  Numbers, data and analysis get him really excited about the future of his Utica family farm and what he can leave for his children. 

ME: Hi Justin!  Tell me a little bit about you and your farm.

JUSTIN: I’m working a multi-generational farm in LaSalle County.  My priority tasks on our farm are to handle relationships with our banks and landowners, and also to handle our finances and our books.  Of course, during planting and harvest, I’m definitely taking my turn on the tractor or in the combine as well.

My wife and I have four kids.  I’m working hard every day because I love it, but also because I’m hoping to build something I can pass off to them someday.

ME: I hear that you are a numbers guy.  What sort of analysis are you doing to benefit your farm?

JUSTIN: Weekly, I’m looking at budget to actuals – which means that I’m checking to see if we applied the budgeted amounts of inputs or if we’re over or under.  And I’m also watching to make sure that we’re recording data during the growing season that will be valuable to us later.  If every pass through the field isn’t recorded, I can’t analyze it later and make us better farmers.

ME: Tell me more.

JUSTIN: As an example, during the growing season, we’re recording every fertilizer application on every field.  We’re applying variable rates, which means that each location within the field is going to get a specific amount equal to what that location needs.  If, when I’m applying fertilizer, I’m not recording that or there’s an error with the technology, if leaves a gap in my data.

ME: Pretty high tech.  What other sorts of data and analysis are you doing?

JUSTIN: Now that we’ve been recording all our information for long enough, I’m able to check out our fields, applications, management and such on a year over year basis.  What gets interesting is to group three or four years of information together and get a good feel for productivity and profitability on a farm.

ME: How do you think these pieces of data change the way you farm?

JUSTIN: I think that every time we’re making management decisions for each field, we have information telling us what fertilizer to apply, how much to apply, what the seed density should be, etc. 

Basically, we have all this information now that helps us make better decisions.  Before the data was available, we made the best decision we could make based on our memory of the past year.  Now, we can see hard data on the productivity of this specific section and how much fertilizer we applied there for the last four years and we make a very informed decision about what to put on that section this year.  Our farm management is much better informed.

ME: Do all farmers operate this way?  Are all farmers using and analyzing the same data?

JUSTIN: There’s a lot of room to grow here and I think suppliers could provide more service in this area to help other farmers acquire the data, analyze it, and apply it to their fields.  We are lucky because on our family farm, this is just something that I really get into and I really focus on.  But not every farm has a data geek. 

ME: What’s agriculture look like down the road with this data and even more available?

JUSTIN: I think having all this data available makes farmers more competitive locally.  As an example, if you’re a young farmer looking to expand your farm and rent more acres, you can get an estimate of soil productivity and gage what your budget and potential cash rent offer could be without even setting foot on the farm.  That gives you a leg up. 

Knowing all this without seeing the farm is also scary.  But this is the world we’re living in now and I think we can either ignore the data available or we can use it to our advantage and get better.  I hope I’m helping our family farm to get better.

I also love the idea that I’m leaving digital records and data points for my kids, if they want to take over the farm.  When I started farming, there was just no way for me to pull everything in my dad’s head out and to make use of it.  Now, I have digital files for my kids to pull and analyze.  I think having this knowledge will make them better when they are ready to take over the farm and set them ahead of where we started out in previous generations.

WHAT ISSUES WILL ICGA TARGET IN 2019?

The Illinois Corn Growers Association excitedly looks forward to pursuing the following federal legislative goals in 2019:

  1. Support ratification of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) for trade
  2. Support multiple pathways that improve market access for higher ethanol blends
  3. Support a federal infrastructure bill that includes funding to upgrade locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River system

Why ratification of the USMCA matters

In Illinois, 41 percent of our corn leaves the state for other markets.  Including ethanol and dried distillers grain with solubles (DDGS) exports, well over half of your corn is leaving the state.  That means that all international markets matter to Illinois corn farmers.

Mexico and Canada are now our top markets because of the extreme success of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), markets that corn farmers absolutely cannot afford to lose.

Exports of grains in all forms (GAIF) – including U.S. corn, barley, sorghum, DDGS, ethanol and certain meat products – have increased 279 percent to Mexico and 431 percent to Canada since the NAFTA went into effect.

Mexico has recently topped all other markets in GIAF imports, with total marketing year shipments growing 6.3 percent year-over-year to a new record of 25.2 million metric tons (almost 1 billion bushels in corn equivalent) between 2016/2017 and 2017/2018. Mexico is the top international buyer of U.S. corn, barley and DDGS as of the last full marketing year’s data, with sales in each category increasing from the prior year.

Canada set a new record for imports of grains in all forms in 2017/2018 and is the second largest buyer of U.S. ethanol and barley, in addition to the eighth largest market for both U.S. corn gluten feed/meal and DDGS and the ninth largest U.S. corn market.

The impact of improving market access for higher ethanol blends

Higher blends of ethanol at pumps all over the nation means additional ethanol demand and corn demand for Illinois farmers.

Establishing a higher octane minimum standard fuel for all vehicles using E-15 and E-20 blends would conservatively create an additional domestic ethanol demand of 3.4 billion gallons by 2030.  This is equivalent to an increased demand for corn of 1.11 billion bushels by 2030. 

This increase in demand for corn represents approximately half of the expected increase in corn supply by 2030 due to yield increases based on a 1.9 bushel per acre trend yield that we are seeing now.  

Why Illinois farmers need upgraded locks and dams

The lock and dam system on the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers was built in the 1930s for a 50-year life-span and a significantly less barge traffic.  Now, 80-90 years later, the system is well past its useful life with several dams seeing critical infrastructure simply crumbling and falling into the river. 

The performance we expect of these locks and dams has changed as well.  The world has changed, offering an international marketplace of which Illinois farmers are well poised to take advantage.  As volumes of grain, ethanol, and by-product exports increase, the efficiency of the locks continues to decrease.  Larger barge tows now have to split into two because the lock chambers aren’t large enough.  Efficiency lags cost money – money that is critical to the farm economy in a time when every penny counts.

EXHAUST EMISSIONS LINKED TO HUMAN HEALTH THREATS

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the U.S. there are 45 million people living, working or attending school within 300 feet of a major road, airport or railroad.3 Hundreds of studies have linked air pollution to a wide range of human health threats from low birth weights to brain cancer, from asthma to leukemia.  For example:

  • A Center for Disease Control review of seven studies involving over 8,000 children found that children diagnosed with leukemia were 50% more likely to live near busy roads than children without leukemia.4
  • A UCLA study linked autism in children with prenatal exposure to traffic pollution.5
  • A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that women exposed to high levels of air pollution in their third trimester of pregnancy may be twice as likely to give birth to a child with autism6
  • A study of 60 million Americans—about 97% of people age 65 and older in the U.S.—shows that long-term exposure to airborne fine particulate matter and ozone increases the risk of premature death, even when that exposure is at levels below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. 7
  • University of Colorado researchers have warned that benzene, toluene and xylene may disrupt the hormone system in humans beyond levels deemed “safe” by federal standards.8
  • According to the University of Southern California, at least 8 percent of the more than 300,000 cases of childhood asthma in Los Angeles County can be attributed to traffic-related pollution at homes within 75 meters of a busy roadway.9
  • A study involving the VA Saint Louis Health Care System in Missouri estimates that about 14% of diabetes in the world—or about 1 in 7 cases—occurs because of higher levels of air pollution, primarily due to particulate matter. 10

These are sobering statistics—and there are hundreds more.  But there is good news:  There is an alternative octane enhancer that makes our fuel safer and our air cleaner—ethanol.

WHAT’S IN OUR GAS IS KILLING US

87. 88. 89. 91. Those numbers on the yellow stickers you see on the gas pump indicate the octane level of the fuel, a measure of the fuel’s performance under compression in your engine.

But it’s what’s behind those numbers that poses a serious health threat to you and your family. And it’s why ethanol is the “clean air choice” when it comes to better engine performance and improved air quality.

FARMERS GO TO SCHOOL: PESTICIDE EDUCATION

Thank you to Illinois Farm Families and Trent Sanderson for today’s post!

Pesticides are an important tool in a farmer’s toolbox because if left alone, insects, weeds, mites or fungi could kill an entire field. However, we’re not just spraying pesticides without careful consideration and education. Every three years, farmers have to go to school and pass an exam to become certified to use pesticides on their crops.

A private pesticide applicator license is required for anyone using Restricted Use pesticides to produce an agricultural commodity on property they own or control – in other words, farmers looking to apply pesticides in their own fields. The “Restricted Use” classification restricts a product, or its uses, to be used by a certified applicator or someone under the certified applicator’s direct supervision.

Before the exam, farmers learn:

  • The who, what, where, when and why of pesticides
  • Safe handling and usage of pesticides
  • Pesticide laws and regulation
  • Integrated Pest Management

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM is the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and utilizing those techniques in the field. IPM emphasizes healthy crops grown with the least possible disruption to the ecosystem and encourages natural pest control mechanisms. In short, farmers consider and employ multiple pest control methods, not just pesticide use.

Over the years, we have accomplished using fewer pesticides, less frequently thanks to research and technology. Whether it’s seed genetics, crop rotation or automated farm equipment, farmers continue to improve their integrated pest management program in the interest of preserving the family farm and the environment.

Trent Sanderson farms with his family in northern Illinois. Together they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and a small herd of beef cattle. He and his wife, Elizabeth, and live near the farm with sons Owen and Jack.

EATING HEALTHY? WHERE TO START?

The internet is a vast, confusing source of information about how to eat healthy. And it seems to be about this time of year when folks are trying to make good on their New Year’s resolutions that those google searches about healthy recipes and which apple yields the biggest metabolism boost.

One thing that doesn’t need to enter your thoughts? Spending more money to buy organic.

While organic and non-organic foods are produced using different farming methods, nutritionally, they are no different. Both organic and non-organic food uses pesticides and other methods of protection to keep your food safe.

In this blog post from Illinois Farm Families, a Chicago mom discovers some of the differences, and similarities, between organic and traditionally grown produce.

Here’s a notable quote from her post:

” I have always assumed that organically grown fruits and vegetables were basically “naturally grown”, meaning existing in or caused by nature.  So I thought they were grown in a greenhouse or large garden, with no pesticides or chemicals used at all.  What I learned is that organic farmers are able to use pesticides and fertilizers, they just have to be of plant or animal origin.  Besides, traditional farmers aren’t just out there spraying pesticides all over their fruits and vegetables all willy-nilly.  Pesticides and fertilizers are used to make sure the farmers are able to provide the best possible products to their consumers.  Make sure you wash your fruits and vegetables and any left over residue is not harmful.  So I feel very comfortable continuing to purchase traditionally grown fruits and vegetables for my family. “

Learn more at WatchUsGrow.org