FOOD TECHNOLOGY

Translating Food Technology

Translating Food Technology: High-tech gadgetry comes to farming

Almost from its beginning, the story of American farming has been the story of lowering food costs for consumers by replacing increasingly scarce human labor with technology. First, it meant substituting literal horse power with internal-combustion horsepower in the early 20th century. In the early 21st century, it's been replacing the work of physically walking crop fields with viewing them remotely via aerial drone. For 2017, you can expect even more exponential leaps toward the increasingling technology-centric farm—perhaps no more aptly sympolized than by the unveiling of the first farmer-free tractor at this year's Husker Harvest Days held in mid September near Alda. Those technological improvements will continue to drive down costs of farm products or add value, or both.
Already, the level of technology on today's farms might astound those who still hold the imaged promoted by the slow-food and local-farms movements. That giant threshing machine you see along the highways cutting wheat, corn and soybeans every fall, now nearly the size of a small home, is already a satellite-navigated system of thousands of moving parts, less guided by the operator inside the climate-controlled cab than it is monitored by him, since it's likely being steered by a computer. The hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crops being processed through the combine are constantly monitored, their progress displayed on a computer terminal, alerting the operator to important measures, from the bushels per acre to the moisture level of the crop. Before it was even planted, the field it's harvesting may have been reviewed by satellite spectrum analysis in order to help choose the best combination of crop, seed variety, number of plants per square foot and needed fertilizer additions by region of the field—even by row. A computerized planter may have adjusted those factors on the fly, making real-time tweaks where the data dictated. Next might have followed a computer-guided pesticide sprayer that changes the quantity and type in areas of a field that are more disease-prone. Aerial drones may have flown low over thousands of acres to help the farmer spot any suprise increase in pests, disease or specific weeds without ever leaving his farm office, sending that data to a worker's cell phone or an unmanned vehicle to locate and kill the specific outbreak of bugs or weeds in the field.

That's all apparently just the beginning. The drive to further automate farming will only accelerate, according to experts. Here are trends that will continue to drive technological change in farming:

Increased demand for high-quality outputs. Today's drive away from commodity crops and toward value-added foods may not require technology, but technology will be the key to make their production cost-effective. The so-called Internet of Things is coming to agriculture as a result, demonstrating the added value of smart webs of connected and remotely controlled objects. One example: The holy grail of meat production known as transparency and traceability. A future interconnected web of objects from the cattle ranch to the meatcase could not only permit consumers to know where a cut of meat came from, but theoretically could even affect the production of that cut by placing market-of-one custom orders that only an interconnected system could execute efficiently enough to make it affordable.

New social and political priorities. If consumer dollars aren't necessarily driving demand toward high-tech, some of the socio-political priorities are. Modern tractors and farm trucks, for instance, use advanced diesel technology that has brought their emission of pollutants down to almost zero. Remote monitoring and data analysis guided by computer has also made an impact in improving the well-being of farm animals, even as pressure continues to cut back on the use of more traditional tools that ensure animal welfare, like antibiotic-based medications.

Changes in farm structure, practice and culture. On average, computing power doubles about every 12 to 18 months, according to conventional wisdom. That incessant improvement has left a lot of affordable computer capability available to harnass on the farm, says Wisconsin professor of biological systems engineering John Shutske. "Big Data" has arrived, creating a "virtual tsunami of data" to drive decision-making by a group who, in the course of just one generation, went from keeping little or no production records to collecting, analyzing and mining data on everything. That trend toward big data, coupled with the Internet of Things will make artificial intelligence available to assume simple decision-making for the farmer in areas like pest management, scheduling operations or optimizing animal health or crop health treatments and regimes.

Beyond that availability of tools, a change in attitude has also opened up young farmers to new ways of doing business. The "shared economy," for instance, has changed some farmers' way of thinking about equipment use, a traditional drain on farm economics. Farmers who used to be willing to spend today's equivalent of $500,000 on a large harvesting combine just to see it sit idle 95 percent of the year are instead open to software-based equipment-sharing arrangements like AirBNB that spread that cost of capital over many farms.

Biotechnology. Not simply the mechanical, but the bio-mechanical, will continue to revolutionize farm technology. The better understanding of genetics at a molecular level brought about by the GMO revolution has made farm production more economical by reducing the greatest remaining source of unpredictability: Living nature. Owing to biotechnology, plants and animals raised on tomorrow's farms will be more controllable and more reliable.

Translating Food Technology: Whatever happened to the bird-flu disaster?

Workers test a turkey for avian influenza

This time last year, American turkey growers were feeling the effects of what USDA has called "the largest animal-health emergency in U.S. history." An outbreak of highly contagious avian influenza, or bird flu, which started in December 2014 and lasted through June 2015, caused the death of more than 48 million turkeys and chickens, including about 3.8 million birds in Nebraska, eventually costing an estimated $3.3 billion in this country, according to the Congressional Research Service. The outbreak in the Midwest led to a turkey shortage that lasted into spring 2016 and also led to higher prices last year.

Fast-forward to this Thanksgiving, and turkey processing is now about 10 percent higher than the same time last year, and no one is talking seriously about any shortage in supply of either frozen or fresh turkeys.

Despite some holes remaining in the nation's protection against the worldwide disease, including some seriously unanswered questions about precisely how it jumped from wild birds to commercial poultry, a year later experts believe the nation is prepared for the next inevitable outbreak. How did the United States avoid a turkey apocolypse?

Working with Congress, USDA has beefed up plans to respond to another outbreak by targeting a series of efforts to three main audiences: commercial poultry farms, technical service industry, and small hobby poultry farmers. "USDA...has learned a great deal through the experience of responding to the largest animal health event in our history," the agency says. Not only did the government and industry react to improve its response, but it also used the outbreak as an opportunity to collect scientific data on the field viruses and from affected premises, as well as solicit feedback from affected parties to better prepare for a future outbreak. Although another outbreak still poses significant risk to the industry and can wipe out individual flocks, the food chain should be aware the United States has the world's strongest surveillance program for the disease. Federal and state animal health agencies along with industry have responded to contain and control another outbreak through several measures:

  • Promoting improved on-farm "biosecurity" practices. Although USDA has concluded wild birds were responsible for introducing the flu virus into the environment, from which it then spread to commercial poultry farms, the number and proximity of affected farms leads them to believe the virus likely spread in other ways as well once it was introduced. For that reason, USDA has emphasized the importance of individual farms upgrading their security practices that help keep infections out of their farms.
  • Improving bird-flu surveillance in wild birds as a means to provide “early warning” risk information. USDA has markedly stepped up testing for the presence of virus in wild migratory birds, funding several university-centered testing programs. It has shared the data from this surveillance throughout the year with poultry producers and other stakeholders in order to communicate ongoing or changing risk of exposure and to encourage enhanced biosecurity.
  • Expanding federal, state and industry response capabilities, including additional personnel, equipment and depopulation, disposal and recovery options. The agency has surveyed government, first responders and industry within the 20 states it considers critically important should a worst-case flu outbreak recur. From that analysis, it has concluded all states have made significant improvements in response capabilities for future cases. Industry-based efforts are also ongoing to improve education and awareness about the disease.
  • Improving the capabilities to rapidly find flu in domestic poultry and to kill off affected flocks within 24 hours. USDA's veterinary division has rallied not only its current tools to quickly and humanely kill infected birds an entire barn at time and dispose of their carcasses quickly and without environmental hazard, but it has also increased research to study new and possibly more effective tools. It has also studied the demographics of poultry populations and better mapped rendering, landfill and incineration facilities that would be needed in case of another outbreak.
  • Streamlining the process to pay affected farmers for their sacrificed birds and for the cost of eliminating viruses, so producers receive a fair amount quickly and can return to full production as quickly as possible.
  • Enhancing the agency's ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with producers, consumers, legislators, media and others regarding outbreaks and other information.
  • Working to identify and deploy effective bird-flu vaccines. Although vaccination is a common tool farmers use to control other diseases in their animals and birds, vaccination against flu creates several problems that make it impractical at this time. For one, influenza is a difficult virus to create a vaccine against that reliably matches the field strains of the virus, so it's not often effective. Secondly, vaccination with flu virus across the poultry industry would confuse surveillance for the disease, since birds that have been vaccinated can't be easily or cheaply distinguished from those that are carrying the wild, infective virus. However, USDA is working to identify better vaccines, and has outlined a strategy in which vaccination might be used as an emergency approach within a tightly confined geographic area with dense poultry production.

Translating Food Technology: This infographic tells shoppers all they need to know about the unsustainability of antibiotic-free

Click for larger versionRaising poultry without using antibiotics "is inevitable," according to some. But when it comes to improving sustainability, is antibiotic-free all it's cracked up to be? Here's everything your customers need to know about the contentious issue in a single infographic.

Translating Food Technology: Why do farmers hire busloads of kids to walk their corn fields?

Why are Nebraska kids walking through cornfields?

In an average year, according to a Lincoln personnel recruiting firm that specializes in the practice, around 100,000 high-school and college kids spend about a month every June and July participating in a Midwestern rite of passage: "detasseling corn."

The annual practice is as old as the invention of hybrid seed corn, the most common form of corn seed used by commercial farmers today. Seed-corn companies produce that hybrid seed by forcing two strains or breeds of corn plant to mate with one another, producing an offspring seed that then carries the best traits of both parents. Detasseling, the practice you're witnessing when you watch teams of teens walk the rows of cornfields or ride above the plants on elevated platforms, is the final step in ensuring the quality of that seed.

Translating Food Technology: Why do livestock farmers sign away their lives?

Why do farmers lock themselves into oppressive contracts?

When Costco Wholesale Inc. announced plans to build a chicken processing plant near Fremont, some in the agriculture industry hailed it as a rare chance to reintroduce some poultry farming back into a state that now accounts for only half of one percent of the nation's production, giving farmers a chance to earn as much as a 7 percent to 8 percent return on investment, according to the company. But critics of the plan were quick to caution potential growers not to trust the company. The Fremont plant's poultry, like 90 percent of all poultry raised in the United States, would not be purchased from farmers on the open market, but instead would be raised by hired farmers tending company-owned birds, using company-supplied feed.

Under such a system of raising farm animals "under contract," as it's called, "...there is no way that you can tell whether a poultry operation is going to cash flow your loans and make any income,” attorney Lynn Hayes, program director for Minnesota's Farmers Legal Action Group, told a public meeting in West Point.

But contract farming, in which an independent farmer invests to build barns and then works under contract for a specific production and processing company, has become virtually the only way to raise meat chickens in the U.S. and is also the system under which the majority of U.S. pork is now raised.

If it's such an oppressive system, why would any farmer trade his independence to work under such a system? Why do farmers do that?

  • Contracting takes risk out of the natural capital-intensity of modern animal agriculture. The cost of feed today accounts for more than 70 percent of the cost to raise a chicken, and since most farmers have moved away from combining cropping operations and livestock raising, most or all of that feed is purchased, not raised on the farm. The purchase price of that feed, subject to floods, freezes and droughts, can fluctuate over the course of a season. Such volatile swings in the commodity markets often force farmers feeding their own animals to either sell early or sharply cut back their herds, as we witnessed Nebraska ranchers doing during this decade's drought. Contract farmers, in contrast, get paid the same regardless of feed prices, while the poultry company absorbs the losses. As a result, according to one study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, contract-production companies remove an estimated 97 percent of the economic risk from growers, compared to independent growers who bear all of that risk on their own.
  • It smooths out cash flow and labor use. Similar to the above, contract-raising animals for a vertically integrated company allows farmers to plan, budget and smooth out income that is naturally volatile and seasonal in the old system of selling farm produce on the open market. In addition, it allows farmers who have other enterprises to better plan their labor use so they neglect neither enterprise.
  • It's simply another form of specialization. Farmers today understand the need for—and value to them—of specialized production. As agriculture grew more competitive in the 20th century, the traditional farmer who used to raise corn, beans, cows, chickens and pigs on the same farm found that his talents, labor and resources were better spent focused on a few commodities, or even a single one. They discovered that being a good cropman didn't make you a good dairyman, and being a good beefman didn't make you a good hogman. So specialization set in, and the mix of enterprises on any given farm shrank. Contracting simply extends that idea beyond species and crop choices. Being a good flock manager doesn't make you a good financial manager, and being a good feed manager doesn't make you a good marketing manager—all of which are necessary to succeed if you are buying, raising and selling your own animals. Contracting lets farmers instead specialize in their focused area of expertise: raising animals efficiently.
  • It may not be ideal, but it often beats the next alternative. In the early days of both poultry and pork contracting, it was often viewed as a temporary fix, something to carry struggling independent farmers through a down market. For most, it didn't turn out that way, locking the majority into the new system for the longterm. But that's not necessarily all bad. As unpleasant as it may be to those who see it as reducing the independence of traditional farmers, the hard truth is it kept many farmers on the farm who otherwise would have gone under. Even today, contract farming provides reliable supplemental income for farmers, most of whom already rely on off-farm income, in order to stay on the farm and in the countryside.

Like any economic system, contracting has its bad and good. One study, for example, shows it likely did contribute to the demise of many hog farmers in the 1990s, mostly because it spread the market risk that was concentrated on the packing plants across the packer and the hog producer. Another suggests the continuing market concentration of poultry businesses has probably caused small—but economically meaningful, nevertheless—reductions in the compensation growers receive.

However, a recent USDA research review suggests that despite sharply increased concentration in many U.S. agricultural markets, most research finds it hasn't had much impact on farm prices. Most agricultural processors, the resarchers note, have their own interests to protect, which usually represent large investments that must be protected over the long-run. For that reason, they realize they can't short their producers forever without driving them out of business. Although they may favor one grower over another, it's in their best economic interests to pay enough to keep their favored ones in business to ensure a stable supply of commodities. That increased coordination between producers and processors reduces costs of production and opportunity costs of inputs, moves information about consumer demand up and down the chain more effectively than traditional cash markets and ultimately increases total returns to producers and processors. The integration of the chicken industry and it's contracted pay-for-performance based structure has saved consumers well over $1 trillion since 1980, according to one estimate.

Listen as these producers explain the benefits of contract feeding in this video supplied by the National Chicken Council.

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Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.


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The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.


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The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.