Hybrid corn, a one-row corn picker and a hand-tied pickup hay baler were just a few firsts pioneered in Shelby County, Iowa, by my grandpa, Will Buman. By 1950, Grandpa, was farming over 1,000 acres of land. For one farmer with 3 sons and one hired man, that was a lot of land. But let me qualify that.
Grandpa also owned 6 tractors; more than one tractor per field hand. And at the time, six tractors definitely exceeded the average farmer. Grandpa understood that technology, not workers, increased production. Grandpa also understood farming didn’t require more horses and mules for efficiency; it needed more tractors, along with those long hours of farming. Yes, my grandfather was ahead of his time.
Today, I often hear that a larger workforce is required to turn the tide on soil conservation and water quality. Every workload analysis I’ve ever read indicates that double or triple the number of staff is required to reach even the most basic water-quality goals.
However, I, along with many other people, have come to a sad realization. The conservation workforce will not grow in numbers. The federal conservation workforce has suffered significant reductions in the past 5 years and it doesn’t look like they are coming back anytime soon. From what I can ascertain, most state agencies are struggling to slow the bleeding and hold steady on worker numbers.
Lack of trained, technical staff, or the inability to grow the conservation workforce, cannot be an excuse for weak growth in conservation outcomes. With new technologies like GIS, LiDAR, drones, machine control, and cloud computing services at our disposal, we should be launching more conservation initiatives at a much faster speed. Now is the time for the moon-shot at conservation; and technology is the vehicle of implementation efficiency.
Just like Grandpa knew more than 65 years ago, new technology, not more people power, is the answer to getting more work done on the farm. More funding, for better technology, is needed to achieve our conservation moon-shot. We cannot get there without it.
Doing the math
Recently, I was told by a state administrator that the budget for one state employee was projected to be a yearly cost of $100,000. Let’s say a state was going to hire 5 new employees. This would come at a cost of $500,000 every year. In most Midwestern states there are approximately 80 counties. If time was equally distributed, this means each employee could only contribute the equivalent time of 12.5 days/county/year. An additional 12.5 days of staffing to help an average of 800 farmers/county seems pretty meaningless.
5 employees X 200 staff days/year ÷ 80 counties = 12.5 days/county/year of additional staffing
What if, instead, legislators budgeted $500,000 on technology that made the hundreds of current employees more efficient? This would have a much larger impact on the protection of our natural resources.