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Tech Brings New Benefits and New Challenges to Cove Farming

GPS Helps Manage Crops; Drones Will Soon Be Helping Too


April 11, 2019

Editor's Note: "The Changing Cove" series, written by Herald Correspondent George Berkheimer, won second place in the 2019 Professional Keystone Press Awards.

Much of the land area in Morrisons Cove is dedicated to farming and agriculture. While the landscape hasn't changed much over the years, the industry itself has undergone revolutions on a number of fronts – so much so that farmers from the 1970s would hardly recognize the equipment, practices and regulatory environment of the modern era.

It's difficult to gauge just how much the industry has changed by simply looking at numbers, because each study tells a slightly different story.

What's most evident is that those currently engaged in farming have had to adapt rapidly to new research and new thinking. High-level information technology developments are on the verge of becoming commonplace, and the churn that's affecting markets and practices is only just beginning.

Farms In Flux

According to U.S. Census Bureau data prepared by the Pennsylvania State Data Center, Morrisons Cove's agriculture employment rose from 947 jobs in 1970 to a peak of 1,149 jobs in 1990, but declined to a total of 838 jobs by 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available.

In the years between the 2007 and 2012 Census of Agriculture surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), however, the average Blair County farm size increased from 167 acres to 172 acres, with the amount of land in farms increasing from 87,434 acres to 90,117 acres.

The market value for agricultural products sold increased from approximately $85.2 million to $107.7 million during the same time, with 16 percent coming from crop sales and 84 percent from livestock sales.

Government payments edged upward from $1.09 million to $1.4 million in that time, and the number of actual farms increased from 523 to 525.

Bedford County

On the Bedford County side, the number of farms increased from 1,173 to 1,210, but average size decreased from 180 acres to 173 acres, with total land in farms decreasing from 210,990 acres to 209,795 acres.

Bedford County's combined market value for agricultural products, meanwhile, increased from $90.8 million to $122.8 million, with 30 percent attributed to crop sales and 70 percent to livestock sales. At the same time, government payments increased from $1.861 million to $1.863 million.

Farms getting bigger

"In general, farms [in the Cove] are getting bigger, but there are fewer of them as the years go by," said Bedford County Farm Bureau President Bruce Nunamaker. "What we're noticing, though, is that more farms are changing hands, and there are a lot of people from out of the area who are looking to buy them as a business opportunity."

Livestock Still Rules

As in the past, crop farming in the Cove remains primarily focused on livestock production, although other factors may soon influence that balance.

A growing nationwide trend in farm-to-table agriculture hasn't yet caught on in the Cove like it has in other areas of the country, noted Altoona Blair County Development Corporation President and CEO Stephen McKnight, but people are starting to give it some thought.

"The Blair County Conservation District is [putting] an effort together to promote more farm-to-table options, especially with family-owned restaurants," he said. "I take it anecdotally that more farmers are trying to get plugged into the supply chain through local farm markets or trying to build relationships directly with restaurant operators and chefs."

As for how economic crops are grown, "Some of the first farmers in this area started experimenting with no-till farming in the 1990s, and now the majority of farmers in the Cove use it," said John Burket of Burket Falls Farm, a fourth-generation family-owned dairy operation in Greenfield Township.

The practice saves labor in terms of the equipment and effort needed for field preparation, and reduces the need for rock removal.

"We're in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, so it's also a big plus from a standpoint of helping with soil compaction and runoff problems that we're trying to avoid," Burket said.

A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and Penn State University in South Central Pennsylvania suggests that crop cover use after corn increased from 40 to 66 percent between 2009 and 2013, providing supplemental livestock food sources and further aiding in runoff reduction and overall soil health.

Global Positioning

Modern technology is helping to alleviate some of the mental stress farmers face in the fields, and is also paying big dividends in fuel, seed and fertilizer savings as more Cove farmers have begun embracing Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers.

Tony Miller, an integrated solutions consultant for West Central Equipment who services that company's Martinsburg location, said local farmers and equipment dealers had initial misgivings some six years ago about how well GPS would work in the Cove owing to the mountains that surround it.

"There are now quite a few thousand acres in Morrisons Cove that are being covered with some sort of GPS technology," Miller said. "Farmers here started to need it when they began using larger equipment, moving up from 12-row planters to things like 16-, 24- and even 31-row planters."

Newer receivers can pick up navigation satellites sitting low on the horizon, he said, enabling more precise positioning triangulation.

GPS is not only useful in maintaining parallel tracking in field work, but can also automatically shut off individual seed or fertilizer delivery systems and spray nozzles to avoid overlap and material waste when making turns. It allows farmers to continue planting, fertilizing or spraying after sunset and takes much of the guesswork out of working small grain and other crop fields that don't have clearly defined rows like corn.

Ag drones

"We're just starting to work with drones," he added, saying that many Cove farmers have yet to determine the best use for them. West Central Equipment's first model should be available later this year.

One benefit, Miller said, is the drone's ability to create a near-infrared yield map that can help detect problem spots in fields long before farmers would normally notice them, identifying things like insect and fungus stress, or drier soil conditions in isolated spots.

"It's more useful than satellite imagery, which can be obstructed by cloud cover," Miller explained.

Even local suppliers are going high tech.

"We're building a new feed mill that will be totally run by computer," said Bill Brumbaugh, location

manager of the Bedford County Farm Bureau Co-Op's Curryville location. "It's going to provide a more accurate and more efficient batching and dosing system."

The new feed mill is expected to be operational sometime this spring.

Dairy Cow 2.0

Cutting-edge technology is beginning to change the way dairy farmers manage herds, utilizing milking robots and wireless sensors that monitor each cow's feeding habits, potential health problems and fertility.

"More dairymen are incorporating these things into their programs, [but] there is an economy of scale associated with most of the technology," Burket said. "The cost benefit is much greater for larger herds, but the investment is much more debatable for herds of our size of 100 head of milkers."

Over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency has become more vigilant on farms, mandating the erection of fences to keep cattle out of streams and even regulating the timing and allocation of manure applications in fields.

"One of the biggest challenges we're faced with that older generations never dealt with is competitive products like almond milk or soy milk stealing our market share," Burket said. The trade agreements the United States enjoys with China and Mexico, the two biggest importers of U.S. milk, are helpful, he added, but may not be enough.

"Every dairyman in this area is in survival mode, and some dairies are in danger of shutting down," he said.

"It's the cost of everything, and the specific dairy challenges, that make it so hard to survive," Nunamaker noted. "People want to keep farming as a way of life in this area, but it is getting harder to do that."

For a long time, Burket said, young people in the Cove have been leaving family farms for better jobs with less demanding hours and the promise of free weekends and vacations.

"I don't think farming is in any danger of dying out here, but we may see a transition in how it's done," he said. "My guess is that we'll be seeing fewer farms but maybe bigger operations run or sustained by corporate entities in the future. The Smithfields, the Tysons, they're going to be the competitive business model."


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