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An Interview with April Hemmes, Farmer and Precision Agriculture Advocate
By Kelly Winquist, Corn Production Systems Innovation Project Manager, John Deere
Kelly Winquist and her team in the precision ag group at John Deere create innovative, system-level solutions that help farmers be more profitable through optimized task execution and applied data analytics. Kelly is a member of the Global Harvest Initiative Steering Committee, a group of up-and-coming leaders from GHI’s member companies.
A few years ago I had never heard the term “precision agriculture.” Now I know how important it is to our ability to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050. As the name suggests, precision agriculture is the use of data and technology to increase the productivity and profitability of agricultural systems by applying inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, water, labor, and machine hours) in precise amounts, locations, forms, and methods to give maximum effectiveness, or maximum yield.
April Hemmes has been farming for 30 years. Here, she talks us through her operations and experience as a farmer, precision ag user, and precision ag advocate:
Kelly Winquist (KW): April, tell me a little about yourself and your farming operations.
April Hemmes (AH): I farm in north central Iowa on my family’s 1,000 acre farm. I am the farmer, my husband works outside the farm. I grow corn and soybeans in rotation and have some pasture for animal grazing and hay production as well. I have done many different kinds of farming, from raising hogs to my current row crop operation.
Kelly: What types of precision ag practices do you use? What is one practice you couldn’t live without?
April: I have a John Deere precision ag display which shows information about prescriptions, or my plan for many different farm practices that I’m performing such as planting, spraying, or harvesting. The display gives me real time data of how my farm job is going while I’m doing it. It also allows me to use the GPS (yes, my tractor has GPS just like your car does!) and mapping features. I have auto steer, or the ability to let my tractor drive itself through the field, too. My combine has row feelers that use sensor data it’s “feeling” about where the row is while harvesting and combines it with satellite data to guide the combine. Finally, I have John Deere APEX software that organizes, stores, and provides tools to study my ag data. I can do things like mark where rocks are so they can be removed.
I definitely could not live without auto steer!! It has enabled me to multi-task while working in the tractor or combine. In fact, I am answering the questions right now while I am tilling! Auto steer helps me avoid missing areas of the field that need harvesting or tilling, thus preventing a waste of fuel and soil for production purposes.
Kelly: Tell me a little about the value of using precision ag practices. How have they changed the way you farm and how is that valuable to your business?
April: I really like the ability to pull up a harvest map and see how particular seeds I’m using performed or how different tillage practices effect yield. I also like to have my maps in the combine when I head out in the fall so I can plan what fields I will harvest first. I don’t have to rely on my memory or paper notes.
Auto steer is my favorite precision ag practice, but it was not an easy sell to other people working for me. The first year I used it, one of my workers who is 70 years old would not use it! Finally I set up the steering for the older gentleman so all he had to do was push a button. The next day when he came to work he said “Could you set that up for me again, it is really nice!”
Kelly: If the sky was the limit, what is one precision ag invention which you’d love to have in your operational repertoire?
April: I’d love to have drones and robots that could take care of weeds so we can use less spray or target specific weed problems. Better yet, have them weed mechanically so we won’t have to use chemicals! Maybe shoot them with lasers, wouldn’t that be cool?
Kelly: April, it is still rather unusual for a woman to be the lead grower here in the USA. Tell me a little about what it’s like being a female grower? What advice would you offer to young women interested in operational agriculture?
April: Everyone tells me it has to have gotten better for women in agriculture over my 30 years in the field, but there still aren’t that many women like me in production agriculture, who are actually farming.
Everyone assumes my husband farms and I help. People who know me and do business with me understand, but I always encourage women to do what they love doing. Young women now don’t have many of the social constraints that I did. Farming isn’t about how strong you are, it’s about how well you do marketing, match the seeds to the soil, and use the tools available to you, like precision ag technology.
My father used to get so mad at me when I would go to a marketing meeting or spend time learning about new technologies available. That’s because, to his generation, it was about hard work, not about being a better business manager. But soon my father and grandfather saw the benefits of my time off the farm. I remember the day I showed my 101 year old grandfather an article about the first GPS guided tractor and he said, “I always knew they would figure out how to drive a tractor without a person steering it; I just didn’t think I would live long enough to see it!”