When Tech Meets Wheat Farming

Posted in Blog, Farming on Wednesday, July 03, 2024

The tech book of the last 20 years goes beyond ‘best practices’ and more closely resembles ‘Best Buy.’”

When Tech Meets Wheat Farming

WHEAT FARMING IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S OLDEST PROFESSIONS, but that doesn't mean it's old-fashioned. Anyone who has visited a working wheat farm in the last 10 years knows that the "amber waves of grain" are a hotspot for some of the most innovative technologies America has to offer.

Gary Bailey, a third-generation wheat farmer outside of St. John, has witnessed the advent of technology on the farm firsthand.

"In the Palouse, we are stewards of some of the best soil in the nation," Bailey said. "We want to leave things better for the next generation. That means staying on top of technology, listening to research, and doing what's responsible for the health of the ground."

Some of those changes in ag science are well known. A process known as crop rotation is practically standard operating procedure on Eastern Washington wheat farms. Crop rotation means that fields are planted with a different crop every other year (or every third year), which returns more nutrients to the soil and leads to greater soil health, water conservation, and reduced erosion. No-till farming, which is exactly what it sounds like, is another strategic change that many farmers have made to promote soil health.

But the tech boom of the last 20 years goes beyond "best practices" and more closely resembles "Best Buy." Tablets, drones, lasers, and GPS have all found a place on the farm.

One of the tools Bailey uses on his farm is called WEED-IT, a spot-sprayer that is towed behind his tractor. The sprayer has sensors that detect chlorophyll (the green pigment present in all plants that is responsible for photosynthesis), which means as the sprayer rolls over bare earth, the sensors can detect each green weed.

Each sensor is connected to a precise spray nozzle, which emits a quick spray of herbicide to kill that specific weed while not wasting any product on the rest of the dirt around the weed. "We look at herbicides kind of like inoculating your kids. You want them to be as healthy as can be – we want the same for our wheat," said Bailey. "It's a neat technology. As the machine is moving along and sees the weeds, it sprays them. We use our herbicides responsibly. We're not going to come flood the ground with herbicides."

When the Washington Grown crew visited Bailey's farm in Season 11, Bailey did a demonstration of the sprayer. On a field of 23 acres, the sprayer used only around one gallon of herbicide per acre, which is 90% less than conventional methods.

"Whitman County is the nation's leading wheat-producing county, so there's pride in that," said Bailey. "We think our wheat is the best in the world – our customers tell us that. We've got to take good care of this land."

In addition to the WEED-IT, Bailey uses autosteer in his tractors, which is a technology that uses GPS positioning to guide the tractor. Farmers like Bailey can map out a field and let the tractor's onboard computer do the driving. This means that each pass over the field is as precise as possible, overlapping by less than an inch, meaning there's no wasted fuel. Some research estimates that using autosteer for activities like spraying or planting can reduce fuel consumption by up to 10%.

"I just turned on the autosteer," Bailey told the Washington Grown camera crew, raising his hands from the steering wheel as the tractor trundled through the field. "Every generation has made advancements. There is new stuff, more advancements coming down the pipe that is going to be amazing."

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