Just got back from yet another farm conference where the tech guru made the scary prediction that anybody who is not totally committed to digital technology today will not be farming in five years. Reminds me of that day back in 1974 when a professor from Guelph came out to the annual boiled beef lunch put on by the Co-op and told us if we didn’t get into big round bales we would all face extinction. That was 43 years ago and there are still three of us tossing square bales on this side road.
Forgive my scepticism about this week’s message from the sophisticate, but I doubt that either of my two brothers-in-law will be out of business in five years unless they go to jail for assaulting an expert at a farm conference. They both started out with 200 acres in the age when the mantra was ‘get big or get out.’
Today, one of them has 2,000 acres, the latest everything and a line of credit that would finance Sudan. The other is still trundling around on 200 acres with a JD1840 loader tractor and a Gleaner combine and doesn’t owe a dime. You’d think they would have nothing in common, but when they get together they talk for hours about how dust stops all machines, digital or analog, just when they are needed most. The competitive edge goes to the guy who can fix it. Not coincidentally, they are both natural mechanics and have WD-40 running through their veins.
When the analog round baler quits, you simply lift the cover, make notes about the colour of the smoke, the location and pitch of the screeching and you form a diagnosis and start surgery with a big hammer. When the digital sprayer conks out, you sit and wait for a 20-something in a van to arrive with his plug and play kit and hope the bill doesn’t go over $1,500. With some of these machines, you need a password to run the diagnostic program and the company won’t give it to you. They say you only have a licence to operate the machine, but you really don’t own it. You are certainly not allowed to fix it.
These are fighting words to the natural mechanics out there and may present the single biggest obstacle yet to the wholesale embrace of the digital revolution on the farm.
I was raised with a tractor toolbox that carried five tools: S-wrench, club hammer, cold chisel, slot screwdriver and vice-grips. You did not venture out into the field without a length of black wire and a can of bolts. The toolbox, applied with perseverance and bad language, was designed to correct any mechanical problem that came up in the field. Returning to the farmstead before dinnertime showed a weakness of character, unless you were on foot and could prove that the breakdown was completely catastrophic.
The largest funeral I ever attended in my neighbourhood was not for a war hero or a hockey great. It was for a beloved diesel mechanic who could diagnose pathology in a machine with his eyes closed and his head cocked to one side. He would say, “I believe you have a valve sticking in the fourth…no the fifth cylinder.”
I remember he found a long-standing electrical short in my old Ford 150 that had stumped me for years. He didn’t even have to look at the truck. He just sat in a booth at the diner listening to me describe the symptoms and he sent me to Canadian Tire with a prescription that solved the problem. His son is still in the business, but he has none of his father’s placid authority. He often grabs me by both lapels and shouts at me that this digital nonsense is going to drive people off the land faster than an anthrax epidemic.
For me, what technology is really good for is finding stuff. You would think that a governor for a tractor made by a company that went out of business when Nixon was still a popular president would be an impossible quest. But your iPhone is actually a treasure map that will lead you to the golden stash and give you a
YouTube instructional video hosted by a gap-toothed guy from Alabama that explains how to install it.
That is an essential improvement to my life and will do more than anything to keep me from going extinct.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.