Saturday, October 1, 2016

Make Mine Oughta-Steer

Farm Journal 2005

You can’t swing a dead cat at a farm show any more without hitting an auto-steer salesman. Plus they won’t let you back into the farm show either.
Hey – I love unneeded technology just as much as the next farmer, unless he is my friend John. This guy gets all the gadgets two weeks before they are invented. He has his own MRI, for example. In fact, you could be on the cutting edge with his hand-me-downs.
In fairness, I depend on John to blaze a technological trail to the future. The problem is that inevitably I begin to hope that once, just once, I can get the jump on him. Once I got a replica of a Star Trek communicator badge. He saw it immediately and asked, “Is that what I think it is?” “Oh yeah”, I replied, “This little baby can teleport me anywhere in the galaxy”. He smiled gently, “They are super, aren’t they? The new ones can be implanted.” He pointed to a small scar on his arm, as I whimpered piteously. My life is a geek tragedy.
So I have pondered the ads, pored over the paid testimonials and university studies [which are getting harder to tell apart, by the way], and actually fondled the components. I have even gone so far as to ask the price. As is typical for such items that I need to be truly and spiritually fulfilled, it was about 3.5 times the upper absolute limit of my most optimistic budget if I have 5 consecutive bumper crops and above-average prices. So money really isn’t a factor. I’m just not sure that auto-steer is an upgrade my farmware can support.
If I understand the mechanics of these widgets, we are on the verge of reducing the “active” portion of our career to something about as aerobic as flossing. One advertisement even boasts that operators (and I am using the term in its most inactive sense, as in “slot machine operator”) can be freed up to attend to other pressing tasks. Like watching TV.
‘Scuse me? Have you watched any TV lately? Did you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards? I can’t recall one USDA official urging more daytime TV as major part of farm policy. Unless you could get a LDP doing it. The idea that auto-steer will free up time is reasonable; the idea that time will be used productively is laughable.
For example, proponents urge auto-steerers to fill in the empty hours talking on their cell phone. There are two problems with this concept. First, most rural areas are not saturated with good cell coverage. My phone works OK except when I am 1) at home, 2) in a tractor, or 3) am late to meet Jan. In fact, if I do have a grabber somewhere on my farm, my survival will likely be determined by the sunspot cycle.
Second, who are we going to call? Everybody else is busy driving, because they don’t have auto-steer, right? So the most likely conversations are two auto-guys jabbering away between turns. This will last for about 3 rounds, I predict. After weather and markets, what is left to talk about? Feelings?
Of course, we could all be on the phone with our commodity brokers. My experience however, is that during high stress periods like planting and harvest when I am way too close to the problem, a direct link to margin-call-generating opportunities is a bad, bad thing. Doing business at 7 mph. may work for some, but I need to be standing stock still when buying options. In fact, when trying to execute some of the more complicated spread schemes, it might be best if I was lying down with a cold cloth on my head.
Another popular fantasy is that we will all take a laptop computer out to the cab with us. Oh, goody – more time in front of a computer! I yearn for spring and fall so I can get away from my office – not take it with me. So far I have identified exactly ZERO office chores that will be done well in a tractor cab. Except FreeCell, of course. Show me a tractor cab with a laptop and I’ll show you some DVD’s stashed away in the operator’s manual pocket.
On the whole, I just don’t believe that steering a machine is a waste of my time. Consider the “idle hands” syndrome. Jan is always relieved during working seasons, since she knows where I am and what I am not doing. If I am in the combine, for example, I cannot be wiring a singing bass to the doorbell.
Steering is admittedly closer to channel-surfing than a triathlon in terms of physical effort, but farmers running around in Speedos is not a pretty picture anyway. At least, having to steer a machine puts a premium on remaining conscious during the doldrums of the day. Anyone who has come to with a field cultivator miles from home in strange field – and who of us hasn’t, eh? – can testify to the power of that memory to prop open traitorous eyelids after lunch. Oh sure, auto-steer devices could assure alertness with howling alarms at the end rows, but who wants to terrified awake fifty times a day?
Besides, after thirty years I have finally gotten passably proficient in self-steering. During corn harvest, for example, I have a game of trying to get the combine heading tweaked to cover a half-mile through without touching the wheel. My record is four consecutive passes, with a Mulligan for the tile hole.
Furthermore, if any nincompoop can push a button and plant perfect row, where’s the sport in that? How will we pick out operators to ridicule in a supportive, loving way?
Word: If we start letting computers drive our machines it won’t be long before they take over lying about the yields. 

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