The 21st Century farmer

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

ALTHOUGH in many ways, 21st  Century farmers are not very different from the farmers who preceded them; they are hardworking, independent caretakers of land and animals at the mercy of the weather. 

Successful farming in the 21st Century, however, requires knowledge not only of the latest techniques for raising crops and farm animals but also of how to operate a successful business.   

Farmers in the 21st Century must, first and foremost, be entrepreneurs. 

The success of their farms rests squarely on their shoulders.  Success today is measured in terms of profit and loss.

In the US, for instance, farming in the 21st Century is viewed as one of the most productive occupations in the country where farms are becoming more and more concentrated.  Increasingly, farmers contract with large business operations, termed ‘agri-businesses’.  

These businesses purchase the farmers’ crops or animals and produce the food;  that is value addition, which we know and recognise in grocery stores, markets and supermarkets.  

In Zimbabwe, this method of farming is known as ‘contract farming’ schemes whereby farmers benefit through improvements in financial support. 

According to the late Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Development, Perrance Shiri: “Contract farming has proved to be a formidable funding facility in cotton and tobacco production. 

 Ways of extending contract farming to other crops and livestock are also being worked out.” 

Farmers doing business this way acknowledge that they reduce the risk of losing money because they are guaranteed a buyer who will offer them an acknowledged price for their crops or animals.

Other farmers sell their products themselves elsewhere, such as on commodities exchanges—trading centres similar to stock markets, where prices are often determined by worldwide supply and demand for the produce/product. 

A variety of factors, such as worldwide market conditions, may lower or raise the prices that these farmers receive. Because these farmers have little control over pricing, keeping down the costs of production is especially important.

Modern day farmers use a wide range of techniques to maximise production and reduce on costs.  For example, even something as common as the cellphone has improved farmworkers’ capacity to co-ordinate their efforts over thousands of acres and speed up their work. 

Whether raising crops or livestock, farmers are finding ways to apply modern techniques and increase their farming efficiency. 

In many ways, the business of raising crops today is distinctly modern. For example, many farmers use integrated pest management techniques to control pests without pesticides. 

To eradicate a pest, they might introduce another type of insect that feeds on it or use a substance that interferes with the pest’s reproductive cycle.

Among the more contemporary methods of raising crops are precision farming, bio-engineering and organic farming.

Precision farming involves using technology and data to make efficient decisions about raising crops. 

Two methods of precision farming include the making of detailed maps of the land and the use of electronic yield monitoring.  

Farmers use detailed maps of the land that are created from satellite and aerial photographs. 

Added to these maps are data from sensing devices in the ground that measure the amounts of water, weeds and nutrients in the soil. 

Today’s Global Positioning Systems (GPS) allow exact locations of the land and nutrients to be pin-pointed. 

Farmers use this information to decide where to add fertilisers, herbicides and /or water to their crops. This way, farmers reduce their costs by cutting down on unnecessary applications.  

GPS also helps the farmer and farmworkers navigate equipment accurately through the fields; cut herbicide use, decreases fuel use and increases time efficiency and work more acres.

Precision farming also includes yield monitoring. Yield monitors are attached to farm equipment, such as combines during harvesting, to track how much is produced in an exact location. 

Together with GPS maps, yield monitors help farmers determine which sites on the farm may need extra nutrients to boost production.

Bio-engineering is another technology used by many farmers of the 21st Century. Bio-engineered crops are grown from seeds that have been genetically modified to yield plants that are altered in some way; for example, to resist certain pests, to tolerate drought or to contain additional nutrients, such as rice with extra vitamin A.

Although many farmers raise bio-engineered crops, many consumers are wary of genetically modified foods and refuse to purchase them. 

Farmers must decide whether the higher production yields and lower production costs of a bio-engineered crop outweigh the risk that the crop will not sell at a price that covers the additional cost of the seeds. 

A growing number of farmers avoid bio-engineered crops altogether, along with the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. 

These farmers take advantage of the higher prices that they can charge for organic grains, fruits and vegetables. 

Since 1990, according to the US Department of Agriculture, sales of organic products have grown 20 percent yearly, and are expected to continue increasing. For small farmers, growing organic products allows them to remain in farming and still make a profit. 

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant.  She is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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