National Geographic | Hollis Bennett
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Jackson Center, OH - Standing proudly in front of her grain bins, Patty Mann looks across her many acres of farmland.
National Geographic | Hollis Bennett

Growing Better: Raising Corn in the 21st Century

How one family farm uses cutting-edge technology to protect natural resources.

To reduce their environmental impact and grow better, Midwestern farmers are turning more and more to high-tech solutions. In the process, they are protecting the natural resources—their soil, but also the shared air and water—that they depend on to create a sustainable way of life.

Take, for example, Patty Mann. She and her husband, Dave, have been farming in northwestern Ohio for 30 years. They started with a small dairy farm, and now manage corn and soybean fields in several Ohio counties. Whether she’s advocating for the nation’s family corn farmers or she’s out driving a grain cart, Mann is a combine of energy. Thanks to technology she can put that energy to its most efficient use.

One piece of the Mann’s high-tech pie is their use of Real Time Kinematic (RTK), a satellite navigation technique that gives their farm machinery pinpoint precision that helps them decrease environmental impact. With auto-steer on their tractors, combines, and sprayers, the machines are accurate to within an inch or two, allowing farmers to only put chemicals precisely where they’re needed, reducing their need for fertilizers and pesticides, and in turn, protecting plant health, soil health and water quality. Once a driver gets to the end of a row and makes a turn, he or she hits a button and the satellite signal takes over, like an autopilot. The technology reduces overlap, saves fuel and time, and cuts down on operator fatigue. “You don’t constantly have to worry about whether you’re leaving a strip, or overlapping too much,” Mann says. “Once you have it, you wonder how you’ve lived without it.”

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Jackson Center, OH - A buzz is heard over the cornfields as a drone takes aerial photographs, allowing Patty to easily assess her crop’s health.

They also use GPS to better understand the composition of the soil in their fields. They can take a sample from a specific area of a field, geo-reference the spot, and then go back two years later to the exact location and pull another sample. “Dave is usually in the combine,” Mann says, “and I’m in the grain cart. If there’s a big rock in the field that needs to be removed, I can drop a pin with my smart phone and we can go back later and get that rock.”

With this guidance, their planting equipment provides almost perfect placement between seeds and puts them at uniform depths. That precision in turn promotes uniform germination, which helps optimize their yield and reduce impact on the environment. And with the help of this data, they can customize the way they plant the seeds. In more productive soils, it puts in more seeds; in poorer soils it plants less. “We can write a planting prescription, and the planter will automatically adjust the seeding rate in different areas of the field.” With this advanced precision technology, the Mann’s are thoughtfully growing better and conserving their natural resources.

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Jackson Center, OH - Using Real Time Kinematic (RTK), the Mann family can tend to their crops with minimal environmental impact.

They plant biotech seeds, seeds that are bred to enable farmers to use less water, and fewer pesticides and fertilizers. “The seeds reduce the amount of tillage we have to do,” Mann explains, “and they’ve lowered nutrient runoff and helped fuel conservation because you’re tilling less. So we’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions. We practice conservation more because of biotech crops.”

The Mann’s have a crop consultant who uses drone technology to take aerial photographs of their fields. With crop-health imaging software, the drone takes two hundred or more pictures of a field, all without using any farming equipment or fuel. Then the pictures are stitched together to create a crop-health map, which shows what areas of a cornfield might be deficient in, say, nitrogen. This allows the Mann’s to be more efficient and sustainable by only using fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals exactly where it is needed, rather than widespread spraying.

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Jackson Center, OH - Patty uses her smart phone to pinpoint exact locations where her crops need attention.

“One of the challenges,” says Mann, “is that now that we have all this data, what do we do with it? We’re starting to overlay soil maps with yield maps with planting maps, and trying to get a handle on what all this is providing us. It’s an exciting time.”

Technology has helped the Mann’s’ farm grow, while offering clean, innovative solutions to sustainable corn production.

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