A Self-Driving Tractor To Nowhere

Ben Pederson

Mar 11, 2017

What the future of farm technology can tell us about that from which we came.

As I approach two decades of being a farmer, there are many good memories to look back on.  The earthy, familiar smell behind that first combine pass. The feel of warming soil in my hands as I dig behind a planter. The sight of a picturesque, harvest sunset. Farming has bonded me with the planet in ways I don't think many people get to experience. The beauty and power of our partner in production leaves me humbled and in awe of the creation we live in.

But the human element of farming always gets me the most. The smell of my Dad’s tractor cab, which he was in for days on end, when I would come to ride on the armrest for hours after school sticks with me. It wasn’t a great smell, but I remember because I was a little boy getting to watch my hero do hero things. Later, it was the taste of that first beer at the shop as the rain falls after a long push to beat weather, and it's not because Busch Light has a memorable taste. It's because it was enjoyed with a few other men who had also fought off the need to sleep for the past 24 hours. We were a team, a unit.

In retrospect, what I remember are the organic things- the things that are truly alive and have everything to do with being alive. Soil, sunlight, and people. The economic victories, while sweet in their own way, just don't provide the feels that those things do. The first reason I get out of bed in the morning, excited to be a better farmer, is not dollar bills.

These memories and ideas have zero economic value. I cannot use them as collateral for a loan, nor will they fertilize my soils. But they have irreplaceable worth- and I know that they are essential if you want to call yourself a good farmer.

It was with this bias that I attended this past Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.  There, Case IH unveiled a prototype for a driverless tractor. It was the talk of the show. A huge crowd gathered around it, guys just staring at the headless, roped-off, red beast. Farmers stood and looked at this thing, less like it was the latest Quad-Track, and more like it was an alien spaceship.

I stood and looked too, for quite a while. Then one word came to mind: "nope."

And that’s coming from an ag tech nerd. For the coming crop year, I am looking at employing about 8 different companies involved in everything from satellite imaging of crops to predicting optimum rates of fertilizer using advanced data and algorithms. I'll monitor planters from my tractor cab that are 40 miles away. I'll stream music and podcasts through my tractor stereo, and my planter will carry two different hybrids, switching between them on the move based on where satellites tell it to. So don’t get me wrong, I love technology. It’s a key to gaining efficiencies. And It will probably keep the human race from starvation. And yet, I still feel that everything has a limit.

As an industry, agriculture is on a crash course with automation. If it’s any indication, I've been getting annoyed by having to steer manually on occasion for the past seven or eight years. It's a natural progression that has a very unnatural end game. Already, I can see that the best farm memories I have from my childhood will be drastically different than what my kids will have someday, and before you say that's normal, remember Grandpa's affinity for fellowship and dirt under his fingernails, as well as Great-Grandpa's, and most every farmer who has ever lived I should guess. These values haven’t changed like others have generation to generation. They’ve been bedrock amongst agrarians. What’s happening right now may well be a fundamental transformation of the way a farmers, well, farm.

So what will we really lose if we lose boots in the dirt? Aside from thousands of farm hand jobs, we'll lose our character. A piece of our soul, a true connection with that from which we all came, and a true talent for understanding and adapting to the environment. Eventually humans will be delegated to pressing a big green "go" button which will initiate the complete process and coordination of planting through harvest for 20,000 acres. Will those computer engineers be called farmers?

Can the genie be put back in the bottle?  For my children's sake, I hope so.

Maybe this is a little dramatic, but I’ll stand by it.  A farmer’s identity has been, and still is, intimately tied to the living things they nurture. It’s a huge part of what drives us. And quite simply, life needs life to survive; for the same reason that human babies need to be held, touched, and loved to thrive.

“Terminator” movie-style doomsday portraits aside, I see a plausible, less grim alternative. Maybe we’ll know when we reach peak technology. It could be that new pieces we add no longer pay a return. Maybe we’ll start monetizing things like quality of life and self-worth, and acknowledge that they warrant investment. Otherwise, why have kids? Why even get up in the morning and put your boots on, if we only exist to breathe and be spoon fed by machines of our own creation? 

My hope is that my children and their peers will be present to these values, and will develop a healthy relationship with technology that will no doubt amaze even me at a ripe old age. It’s also plausible that I’ll be part of this conflict yet in my career and can do my small part to help guide humans and technology toward a better outcome. One thing is for sure- I won't be steering my tractor. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.

Ben Pederson

Mar 11, 2017