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VOL. 10 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 25, 2017

Genetic Code

Contrary to pop-culture perception, farmers have been on the cutting edge of technology for thousands of years

By Patrick Lantrip

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While the anachronistic farmer trope may be a common pop-culture perception, these stewards of the land have in fact been on the cutting edge of technology for thousands of years.

And every milestone since the Neolithic period, from the first plows to today’s automated tractors, has allowed farmers to increase their yields and support a perpetually growing population.

“Our industry is really a breeding ground for the adoption of new technology,” said John Butler. “A lot of people think of farmers, cattlemen and producers as not that progressive, but my experience is that we are extremely aggressive, we’re entrepreneurs, and we love challenging ourselves.”

As a fifth-generation farmer in West Tennessee and current president of Agricenter International, Butler has seen a lot of changes in the industry.

“The manual labor that was part of the daily grind of running a large farm – don’t get me wrong, some of that is still in play – but a lot of it has been removed from our lifestyle,” Butler said. “So for instance, I’m the first member of my family in five generations who hasn’t had to manually pick cotton for a living.”

These days, much of the machinery on Butler’s Jones Creek Farms is automated and communicates though GPS, which not only frees up countless man-hours, but allows for a level of efficiency that Butler’s predecessors could only have dreamed of.

“The innovation in that sector has impacted producers like myself and consumers tremendously,” he said. “You just push a button and it automatically gets into the position it needs to be in and goes on its way.”

Auto steering, and the ability to link his equipment with companion machines, also allows farmers like Butler to efficiently apply fertilizer and manage nutrients by isolating their farms down to small-acre grids.

“We can fix the nutritional issues associated with a very small subset,” he said, “which lets us manage the revenue, nutritional requirements and any type of environmental conditions that need to be addressed.”

Recently, Butler turned over operational control of Jones Creek Farms to his son, J.R., who is now the sixth generation to take care of their ancestral land.

“My dad was still there to help me and give me advice,” said Butler, who also took over the family business in his late-20s. “At any day on our farm you will find three generations working side-by-side.”

This move has allowed Butler to become president of Agricenter, where he now has the opportunity to share his passion for conservation and land management on a larger scale.

“I talk about the land in the same context I talk about my family,” he said. “My No. 1 job was to take care of my family and tend after the land that was placed in my care for whatever short time I was responsible for it. You can’t speak to a farmer or rancher who doesn’t have that same passion and understanding.”

TECHNOLOGY FROM THE GROUND UP

Investment in new agricultural technology in the U.S. in 2016 was down from 2015, but the industry was still able to haul in more than $3 billion of venture capital funding, in part a testament to the industry becoming increasingly intertwined with state-of-art precision farming technology.

To bring some of that national focus on Ag tech to the Mid-South, AgLaunch, a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, was founded.

“The Ag tech industry has grown phenomenally in terms of investment in the last decade,” Pete Nelson, director of the AgLaunch initiative and vice president of Ag innovation for Memphis Bioworks, said. “Ag is the industry in our city that is the most ripe for innovation. It’s already a multibillion-dollar industry.”

AgLaunch’s mission is to raise $100 million public and $500 million in private investment over next five years to help grow 100 new startup companies in Memphis and the region. To achieve this goal, the program unites investors, researchers, farmers, entrepreneurs and farm organizations to help solve major problems in agriculture.

Nelson said one of the most important aspects of this is the farmers’ feedback on real-world problems they’re facing in the fields.

“Our main bread and butter is coordinating directly with farmers,” he said. “Some of them seem like really simple things, like dealing with spray drift from herbicides and pesticides which may accidentally spread to another farm or cause environmental problems.”

Other common problems include herbicide-resistant pests, water and energy management, and low germination rates for seeds.

“We’re going to companies and telling them to come to Memphis, partner with the growers,” he said. “And though they may take a little equity in your company, they will get you in the field, kick the tires and see if it works.”

The biggest thing in Ag innovation is autonomy and robotics, according to Nelson. “That’s going to be big because it helps with labor cost,” he said.

He also cited the falling cost of genomic sequencing, which has a multitude of biotechnology applications; CRISPR gene editing; biologics; non-hard chemistry; and information collection.

One such information collection company, Skycision, was at the annual Memphis Farm & Gin Show at Cook Convention Center on March 3.

Skycision, a data analysis company that specializes in early-stage stress detection of pests, disease, weeds, blight and molds that impact a farmer’s yield value, trains farmers on how to use drones to collect the data so Skycision can monitor it for any early signs of trouble.

Prior to becoming president and CEO of Skycision, Brendan Carroll and his partner were exploring commercial drone delivery, specifically how to increase access to health care or medicine to people in rural areas.

However, Carroll said drone delivery turned out to be a logistics nightmare and was simply ahead of its time.

“But in the process we stumbled upon the fact that farmers have a lot of bigger problems to fry than accessing their prescription that week from Walgreens,” he said.

So Skycision started interviewing farmers and realized they were struggling with everything from outdated and antiquated software systems to highly enforced regulations.

“They are spending hundreds of hours over the course of a season just walking and driving their fields looking for pests and disease,” he said. “They still averaged losses of approximately 6 percent, which can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on how many acres they have.”

While data is by far the most important part of the equation, drones are a great tool, Carroll said, because they can be fitted with a special kind of sensor and completely cover a field in a more cost effective, efficient manner than a farmer can by foot.

“We created a mobile application that flies it for the farmer, so the farmer doesn’t have to become a pilot, and then from there we take the images and look at the reflectance of infrared and red-edge light, which are highly sensitive to chlorophyll stress and highly applicable in vegetative analysis.”

This allows Carroll and his company to examine the current state of a farmer’s field, tell them where there are deficiencies, and track how corrective actions progress over time.

This gives farmers insight on where to treat, which in turn saves costs on pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, labor and ultimately helps detect areas of fields that were previously ignored.

The old method, according to Carroll, covered less than 5 percent of the actual field and in many cases, less than 1 percent, because when canvasing their fields farmers can only check a small sample size, which leaves them vulnerable to rapidly spreading diseases and infestations.

“They don’t have compete coverage, which yields about a 20 percent error rate for their sampling,” he said.

According to Carroll, drones are very valuable because previously, field analysis was done with satellite data, which had a much a coarser resolution and was susceptible to atmospheric interference.

“Farmers are great mechanical engineers, and they are very good with their hands, but if you really want to extract the total potential value, you really almost need a comprehensive software solution that has people who specialize in this field,” he said.

GENETIC MODIFICATION

Precision agriculture isn’t only it implemented at the crop level – without the right seeds, all of the efficiency improvements would be for naught.

“At the very beginning of my career it might have taken a soybean breeder 20 years to get a variety to the level where a grower could purchase it and plant it,” said Monty Malone, soybean agronomy leader for Bayer AG. “And now if we’re not somewhere in that seven- to eight-year range, then we’re not going to be fast enough to market versus the competition.”

Malone said the shelf life for soybean varieties, because of the competitive marketplace, is roughly three years.

“Efficiency is key for both the developer and the grower,” Malone said.

Bayer first got into the soybean business in the U.S. in 2011 by acquiring a small seed company based out of Dewitt, Arkansas, called Hornbeck Seed Co. Inc. Bayer recently unveiled a new station just outside of Marion, Arkansas, that supports both trait development and germplasm for soybeans.

The new state-of-the-art Marion facility replaced the original facility in Dewitt and focuses on breeding regionally specific soybean varieties for the Mid-South.

“The disease, pressure and environmental stress for Mid-South growers up and down the Mississippi River Valley is different than the rest of the United States,” Malone said. “It is really critical for our station to be down there to expose our preliminary line to the same types of pressure and stress that they’re going to receive once a grower purchases it.”

One of the ways they do this is by looking for native traits that are adapted to the unique regional stressors.

“From the very beginning, they are going to make crosses with plants that have known levels of disease reactions and environmental tolerance,” Malone said. “Within one platform, they will have about 30,000 varieties that the breeding station in Marion will be handling. Over time it whittles down to maybe one or two varieties that will make it to market every year.”

Malone calls it a constant cycle of cross-pollinating plants.

The facility also corroborates with sister stations in South America, which effectively allows Bayer to have two growing seasons a year – thus cutting the developmental process in half.

“When it’s summer in Marion, Arkansas, it’s winter at our breeding stations in South America, so they send germplasm back and forth to grow them in the counter-season.”

Having two growing seasons allows Bayer to get their costs down and get the product to market sooner.

Soybean Cyst Nematode, Southern Stem Canker and Root Rot Nematode are some diseases Mid-South farmers want solutions for the most, and that’s what the Marion station focuses on. Chloride intolerance is another issue that Southern growers face.

“We don’t have a lot of crop inputs for chloride issues, other than variety selection and genetic tolerance to high levels of salt,” Malone said.

Irrigation water from some Southern aquifers, particularly in Arkansas and north Louisiana, may contain higher-than-ideal levels of chlorine that can be detrimental to the crops.

“Some varieties are more sensitive to that salt level than others,” Malone said. “It’s something that we have to have in mind when we put varieties into the market.”

Conversely, seed treatments, in addition to genetic tolerance, are effective in helping control nematodes, which gives the developers a backup plan.

Some soybean varieties, Malone said, are undesirable hosts for the nematodes.

“We’ve identified several of those in commercial soybeans in the U.S.,” he said. “There are about eight native sources that you can cross with to give your soybean variety tolerance to certain types of nematodes.”

Malone said Bayer is working on a genetic modification, which while still six or seven years off, would give soybeans broad resistance to most species of nematodes.

Malone said there has never been anything like that in the industry before – it has been dependent on using native traits to date.

Additionally, Bayer has partnered with Nature Source Genetics, a company that is profiling all of the traits in the soybean genome globally.

Bayer eventually hopes to use this research to further enhance their soybeans with some long-lost genetic traits of its wild ancestor.

“The wild species has a lot of baggage – a lot of undesirable traits that we would never want,” Malone said. “But it’s also got a lot of valuable characteristics that could be beneficial. This company is identifying the good and allowing us to capture some of that at the DNA level without bringing all that baggage in.”

In turn this creates genetic diversity, which Malone says is the key to higher yields and may be critical to fight unforeseen pests and diseases that may arise in the future.

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