A Rewarding Way Of Life

 Mike Sullivan, who, along with his son, Ryan, run the family farm
 in Burdette, Ark., commented that “the days of 40 acres and a mule
 are long gone”, and how the family farm has now become a big business.

 Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

Sullivans Look Forward To Paths Where New Technology Will Lead

(Second Part Of A Two-Part Series)

MidAmerica Farmer Grower

   The really bright side of agriculture today is in the technology. The old days of 40 acres and a mule are long gone.
   “I remember back in the early- to mid- 1990s, looking at farm magazines and I would see a picture of a satellite,” said Mike Sullivan, who, along with his son, Ryan, run the farm in Burdette, Ark. in the Northeast part of the state in Mississippi County, about an hour north of Memphis.
   “A line would be drawn down to a tractor with the title of the article saying: ‘One Day Your Tractor Will Be Guided By Satellite.’ I remember reading that article and thinking, ‘I’ll never see that.’ Well, it’s here, it’s been here! Ryan has never known anything but this since he has never operated a marker.
   “I grew up using markers and we had more trouble with our markers than it seemed like we had with the planter or hipper or whatever,” Mike continued. “So when we went to this technology it just really boosted the efficiency of the whole operation; but one of the benefits of this new technology is the wireless data transfer that is in every operation and every piece of equipment that goes across the field. We’re documenting trips across the field with fuel used, how much time it takes to do the field. We plug the variety into the planter, the fertilizer, and everything that is done in the field is recorded and sent to the land database and it’s put in a format to help us make each field a profit center. We take the yield data from the combine, we plug the price in or other commodity that we’re harvesting, then it records the trips across the field. Everything is done automatically. We can pull up Field 19 on a specific farm and we can see the net profit on that particular field.
   “The one component that we’re not quite there yet is the irrigation data and we’re working through that,” Mike said. “We’re trying to get that component tied in to where we’ll have every cost on every field, including the irrigation all the way through harvest; and at the end of the year we’ll figure out the profitability or loss of each field. Ryan has been a big part of that, and will be a big part of that in the future.
   “There’s the old phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ It’s critical that we enter the data correctly, and we’re going to have an all-day training with our employees middle of next week. We want them to know how important it is to document these operations. I know it’s a big challenge, and Ryan has been a big part of helping make sure that everybody is up to speed on this data transfer.”
   Ryan admitted it’s hard to keep everyone up to date on the newest systems which seem to change often. He noted that everyone is used to doing things the old way.
   “It’s different every day and it’s hard for everybody to pick up on everything,” Ryan said. “These guys we have working for us have done it a certain way and then, when we’re throwing new things at them every day, it’s really hard; but we really need to train our labor on all these new data transfer things.”
   “Greenway is coming to our farm next Wednesday to do a training class to educate the guys that work for us so they know how to use this technology and equipment,” Ryan continued. “It’s just a learning curve that we’re all working through to keep up with what’s going on.”
   Another issue for the farm is continuity of employees. They spend a lot of time training an employee, and then he’ll be gone. They have to bring in somebody else and begin the whole process over again.
   “One big thing that has helped us to inspire everybody to buy into this program is reminding them that they are part of a team,” Ryan added. “If one person doesn’t do the right thing on one combine then all the combines are spitting out garbage and our true data is lost.”
   Mike feels that showing employees the end product helps them realize the value of their efforts.
   “We’re not doing this just to go through the motions, we’re doing it because we’re trying to come up with more valuable data,” he said. “So at the end of the year we’ll go to the conference room and we’ll show everyone the data to let them know they are the reason why we’ve got the good data. We encourage them to look at their work in a positive way. We tell them they all did a really great job and also there’s certain things we need to work on.”
   The Sullivans learned where they are deficient at harvest season when there’s lots of field work and extra labor is needed. All of their full time regular workers are on a combine, so they’re picking up untrained labor to fill in. That makes it hard to teach at that time, because there’s never enough help for the harvest plus the field work.
   “So we try to use the analogy of a football team,” Mike said. “I look at myself as the head football coach but without everybody on the offensive line and the running back and the assistant coach here, our efforts fall short. It takes every one of us. So what we try to do is come in with a new mindset, trying to find a better way than how we’ve been doing it. It’s the same as a football coach coming in; we’ve always been three yards and a cloud of dust and now we’re going in pass and tackle. Some people are going to say ‘I think we ought to be running the ball more,’ so it’s real important for everybody to feel engaged and – number one – to feel important because if they don’t feel important they’re not going to do as good a job.”
   Mike believes technology will shape the future of farming. Technology is evolving daily and that brings up visions of even more new ways of farming.
“I really believe that what we’re going to have is a big video screen and we’re going to have a dispatcher; I think we’ll be able to see every piece of equipment running on the screen; instead of having everybody on a specific piece of equipment I think we’ll have two set-up guys. One will be driving a truck and another will be the set-up guy; the dispatcher will say ‘we’ll be through with Field 19 in about 30 minutes, you need to be at that field so you can move the equipment; so two people will move that operation to Field 20 and they’ll get it lined up on the AB lines that are already set up. Then you’ll hit start and automation will take over. I don’t know where it is going to end, but I think that’s the next logical step.”
   Ryan commented on the future of the Sullivan operation too: “Three years ago when I started college, we probably were farming 8,000 acres, now we’re farming 12,000 acres. We’ve actually picked up 1,000 acres a year roughly, a little bit more; so, like he said, I don’t know where it will stop, but if we get land that is adjoining ours and have the opportunity to farm more land, how do you say no? We don’t know where you stop as far as growing and getting the farm so big that you have to hire more people and a manager-type person and those things.
   “It’s already to the point where this farm isn’t really like it was when I grew up. It’s more, it’s bigger, and more spread out, and it’s not the family farm any more, but it’s a big business.”
   “A huge business,” Mike added. In the end, the data may show them the way.
   “All of this data that we’re getting in may show us,” said Ryan. “Maybe we were most efficient at 10,000 acres, maybe we need to be there; maybe every bit that we’re growing is turning a bigger profit. “So these new technologies will help us make decisions,  hopefully, so we’ll know where to stop. But I perceive the future like this: I know that if I’m going to keep farming my whole life, before I die I’ll be farming over 20,000 acres or more. I just think that’s the way it’s going to go.”
   With GPS, there’s no reason to stop farming at dark anymore.
   “You look at the factories and you could say the farm should model the factories,” Mike said. “You take GM or the new core steel mill, when it gets dark they don’t just shut everything down; they have two crews. At planting time, we run two crews and it’s amazing what you can get done by working a crew all night. You see that if we hadn’t been running all night, we’d be 500 acres back! With weather and other things that farmers have to deal with, we just have a very narrow window to get things done. So one of the benefits of this technology is we got all the AB lines saved in there, you go to the field and the tractor knows what field it’s in. There’s absolutely no reason to stop at dark and so, there again, that requires more competent labor.
   “I think the farm is evolving into a big business and we have to treat it like the big business that it is,” Mike pointed out. “The machinery is way too big and way too expensive to park it for 12 hours. You actually lose more than 12 hours. We’re working all night, we literally leave the tractor running; one guy gets out of the truck and another gets in. The first goes home and sleeps and the other guy is on duty. One very interesting quote that I’ve saved for years and posted in my office is from a guy named M. Olster. It says ‘If you farm as a way of life, it can be a very expensive business; if you farm as a business, it can be a very rewarding way of life.’
   “I think that sums it all up right there,” Mike added. “Yeah, I wish we could go back to 40 acres and a mule and slow things down sometimes, but these air conditioned tractors with radios sure are nice; and we can’t go back, so all we can do is look forward. It’s a very exciting time in agriculture, because frankly, as far as I know, everybody still likes to eat every day.” ∆
   BETTY VALLE GEGG-NAEGER: Senior Staff Writer, MidAmerica Farmer Grower
MidAmerica Farm Publications, Inc
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