Crop production depends partially on the equipment that the farm can use: it varies a lot in scale but also in variety in terms of how well it is adapted to particular scale/soil/weather conditions. The greater complexity of the tools in the farmers’ tool chest, the better the chances are raising a good crop.
Equipment used/involved: tillage, planting, weed control, harvest.
Our primary challenge w/ equipment is size: we are small scale – growing crops on about 15 acres – as opposed to our neighbors from hundreds to thousands of ac.
There is an irony here: we came upon the agricultural scene here at the time when conventional farmers were upsizing – hence the small scale equipment was and is cheap; sometimes, at farm auctions, the folks bidding against us are the scrap dealers. This is especially notable with weed control equipment: conventional farmers now depend on chemical weed control; organic farmers still depend on mechanical means – rotary hoe, row cultivator, and flaming. However, due to the growth of the organic farm sector, there is now more demand for smaller equipment.
Newer tillage equipment makes a finer and smoother seed bed resulting in better germination and weed control. There is little difference between tillage equipment used on organic and conventional farms; except that many conventional farmers are no-till and so use little/no tillage equipment. Equipment used depends mostly on scale of the operation: larger ones have a variety of equipment to do the best job for varying field/weather conditions. We small scale folks can’t justify the investment in all that equipment. We make do with what we scavenge at farm auctions; however, they don’t do as nice a job.
Planters have become much more sophisticated (eg, air planters); the main improvement is that they put one seed at precise intervals; in contrast, our old 2 row JD planter from the 1950s puts seeds down int a row – but how many seeds – is more chaotic, which means that we usually plant too many or too few seeds. Of course, there are adjustments for that; the imprecision is affected by planting depth: too shallow – the seeds do not germinate, too deep – they don’t make it to the surface. This is especially true of planting sorghum – our primary cash crop. The reason is that the sorghum seed is very small, so if it is planted too shallow, the soil may dry out before the seed germinates; on the other hand, if it planted too deep, the sprout will not make it to the surface before it gives up and dies. Modern planters make population control more precise. However, they do not make 2 row air planters; further, this equipment is more expensive equipment than we can justify for our small scale.
Row cultivators have improved as well, making weed control more effective; however, they are also more expensive. On our small scale we find it hard to justify the price – so we make do with older equipment. During my inspection of organic farms, I have noted a remarkable increase in effective weed control due to better equipment and good management. Many organic farmers have several different kinds of row cultivators, which are used for specific soil conditions and or height of the crop. Organic farmers note that the trade off between organics and conventional is time required for weed control: it takes many passes across the fields, whereas their chemical neighbors usually hire a local custom chemical applicator.
The factor of scale: we have 2 row equipment because we have small fields. When I inspect an organic farm with hundreds of acres of row crops, they have much bigger equipment. I am used to seeing 4, 6, and 12 row equipment. Lately, I have been seeing 18 and even 24 row equipment. The larger organic farmers are adapting and when necessary, building their own equipment. For comparison of scale, we grow about 10 acres of row crops; when farmers are growing 500 and more acres, they are usually using at least 12 row equipment. The main reason for having larger equipment is that they need to cultivate hundreds or thousands of acres, which makes it more feasible to invest in larger/fancier equipment.
Another more recent innovation is the use of GPS guidance. When I first heard about this technology, I scoffed at it, thinking that it was another gadget designed to fleece farmers. Then I noted that some organic farmers were using it as well and were extolling the benefits – with guidance, the operator does not have to steer the tractor and can focus on how effective the cultivator is at destroying weeds. Further, the guidance system is so precise that the cultivator can be adjusted to be much closer to the crop row and thus taking out a higher percentage of the weeds. Seeing the results of the weed control, I am impressed. Once again, our small scale does not warrant the financial investment.
Harvesting equipment. In this category, the scale of operation is everything, ie, there does not appear to be any advantage/difference between conventional and organic equipment. The primary equipment used is the combine, the size of the combine owned/used is usually determined by the scale of the crops to be harvested. This is true for us as well. Our combine is a 2 row one that I bought at a farm auction for $75. Over the years, I also purchased several other similar combines (AC 60) for spare parts. I am told that modern combines cost around $500,000. However, for most crops, our combine does just as good a job as theirs. It is just s-l-o-w-e-r. Which is fine.