By Nick Weber
Digital Communications Team
It was 40°F and windy at 7:09 a.m. when we pulled up the driveway to Martz-Spears Farm in northern Illinois. Dustin Spears was saying good-bye to his wife as she headed to her job. Dustin dashed into the farm shed to grab something as we parked the car. When he reappeared, we made our introductions, but I got the sense he didn’t want to chit-chat; he wanted to get to the field.
So, within two minutes of arriving, I was in the passenger seat of his truck and heading to a 75-acre field about 20 minutes north. Two other people from Monsanto, Melissa and Chris, were in the other car, a Hyundai Veloster, which looked out of place in this rural landscape. I kept calling it the “velociraptor.”
On the truck ride, Dustin and I exchanged a couple stories—one about social media engagement, another about seed and crop prices and another about Monsanto’s reputation. We arrived at the field. About three-fourths of it is flat but with a gentle slant that leads toward a swell near a pond on one side. There are corn stalks on top of the field from last year’s harvest, even though this field was tilled earlier this year.
It’s cold. It was near 70 in St. Louis the previous day, so I just grabbed a polo and a sweatshirt. It wasn’t enough. Dustin has on a jacket and a stocking cap. Clearly, he’s more prepared. He said the timing of our visit is pretty good, actually, because he can’t plant yet this morning. There’s frost on the soil still, and he needs it to be a little warmer to get rolling. For one colleague, it was her first visit to a farm, so we make sure she gets the 101 planter tour and an overview of what she will experience today.
Flying a Drone
Dustin also was anxious to show us his drone. And I was anxious to see it myself. Remember that feeling when you’re 5 or 6 years old and your best friend got a remote control car? And you couldn’t wait to take your turn and make it jump ramps and run through soda cans or blocks? That’s what seeing Dustin pull the drone out of its box felt like, but without the “let’s destroy stuff” part. And then he let me fly it—but only if I didn’t crash it. So basically, I was relegated to up and down, left and right. That was fine by me.
The drone is pretty cool stuff. It can snap pictures and videos from high above. Then, Dustin pops out a card and downloads instantly to his tablet. Using it at planting isn’t necessary, but it was fun to Dustin tinker with it and tell us how he plans on using it during the growing season. Basically, the drone can fly directly above the crop canopy and take pictures of the entire field. Dustin will be able to determine if there are any stressed areas and possibly address the crop’s needs immediately, rather than wait until after the season to learn of the issues.
A New Experience—Driving a Truck
Around 9:30 a.m., a constant 15 mph wind and 15 degree increase in temperature burned off the frost and made things warm enough in Dustin’s mind to commence planting. I asked him how long he would take to plant 75 acres. “About three hours,” he said. I didn’t quite believe him, but obviously, he would know. He hopped in the cab, pushed a few buttons and was off. The photographer, Chris, took the first turn to snap some pictures (visit the planting slideshow) and shoot video. After about 30 minutes, Dustin called me, asking who wanted the next ride. Melissa volunteered. “Just drive my truck and meet us.”
This would be my first time driving a truck. I think every farmer has one, but, in the suburbs, spotting one is nearly as rare as finding velociraptor skeletons. I wasn’t worried so much about driving it; actually, I was happy to add it to my list of “Things That I Could Do to Be Like a Farmer.” (For the record, artificial insemination is way down on the list). What I was worried about was driving through the already-planted corn and causing compaction—the weight of the truck would cause the soil to compress, which could impact the emergence of the seed, or so I thought. Dustin insisted that I wouldn’t hurt anything. Nonetheless, I drove as slow as I could, thinking (foolishly, I assume) that might ease the pressure of the truck in compacting the soil. When I had to drive it a second and third time, I did my best to follow the tracks I made the first time, so there would not be tire paths all over his freshly planted field. I’m expecting a call from Dustin at harvest when he tells me his yield monitor will know where I drove his truck…..
Finally, it was my turn to hop in the cab for a ride. Dustin explained all of the computer screens (three in total) and how they help him. The tablet screen has an app running that shows him where his tractor is in the field, how the seed is spaced, if he has any seeds missing their mark, and the force of the planter units on the ground. The 20/20 Seed Sense° screen is a product from Precision Planting that helps him understand what’s happening with each planter unit, 36 in total. The other screen is one for the tractor operation.
About halfway through my ride, a few of his planter units signaled they were out of seed. Dustin hopped out and took a bucketful of seed from one planter box—a big plastic tub that funnels the seed to the planter units—and moved it to the other box. The tractor was still running, louder than I recall from a previous planting visit at another farm. While I was standing there waiting, liquid started shooting up in the air from a hose. For some reason, I couldn’t muster a yell, so I just started emphatically pointing. Dustin jumped down, grabbed a toolkit and went to work. He had it fixed in about 2 minutes.
He was getting close to finishing this field. His next field was several miles away. It was time to get out of his way. I exited the cab, as did Dustin, who came over to say good-bye to Melissa and Chris. We thanked him for his time and knowledge and wished him well with planting and the growing season. We hopped in the Veloster, started the car and make a right turn to head south to St. Louis at 12:36 p.m.—nearly three hours exactly from the time Dustin started planting the field.
See the slide show of the visit to the Martz-Spears farmers at Monsanto.com.