July 30 2014 12:00 AM

What politics and farming have in common

One quick election note: This has been a refreshingly civil summer election season without many seriously contested primary fights. Which makes the attack mailing from the group that calls itself Capitol Region Progress a notable exception.

The large postcard size mailing is little more than an excuse by this anonymous group to use six unflattering photos of Deb Nolan, who is seeking reelection to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. In this two-candidate primary for the 12th District Okemos seat, Nolan is running against Okemos School Board member Amy Lothamer. What passes for voter information in this trashy mailing is a sentence noting that Nolan voted to abolish the county´s inept road commission and voted for budget cuts that the group claims stirred Sheriff Gene Wigglesworth to question his ability to deliver 911 services. Abutting this statement? A sinister balaclava clad gunman, his weapon readied.

Nolan said she doesn’t know who is behind the attack ad. Capitol Region Progress doesn’t appear as a registered campaign organization with the Michigan Secretary of State. Lothamer would not talk about the mailing, insisting that any questions be submitted by email.

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Every time I attend the MSU Agriculture Expo, it´s a reminder of how little most of us know about farming.

Away from urban areas, we drive past fields of corn, soy, wheat; maybe see cows or horses, even sheep. It is very agrarian and deceptively bucolic. But what really happening is a complex, capital intensive, data driven, million-dollar business.

So it should come as no surprise that it´s increasingly being managed using smart phones, just like everything else. There are hundreds of apps helping farmers deal with the weather, commodity prices, land management and even equipment repairs. It complements the use of GPS systems to guild planters, cultivators and other large and expensive equipment — all aimed at finding efficiencies to increase profits.

As with any business, success requires expense controls and revenue growth, and the degree to which farmers can manage their land and crops was impossible a generation ago. A large farm field may look monolithic, but it isn´t. The types of soil and how they respond to watering, nutrient levels, pests all can vary significantly on the same broad stretch of land. Where in the past, a farmer would hop onto a tractor and work his field, now the ideal is to micro-manage everything.

CropTrak was among the companies at the Ag Expo promoting a web-based farm management and reporting system. It´s slogan: “Making a great app even better.” It integrates weather information and data gathered from farm equipment, monitors watering system and creates reports. Farmers download satellite images of their farms, field boundaries and establish zones to manage how they plant and harvest. They store information about pesticide and fertilizer applications, how much they water and when.

Web-based tools like CropTrak are particularly popular with large farmers and agronomists, said the firm’s president, Aaron Hutchinson. He explained that farmers seeking to wring the most value from their land have too many variables to juggle to manage without data-based programs. “As soon as they say to themselves what were the nine things I just did to the ground, they can´t manage it,” he said. “They need lots of information quickly: variable rates of seeding, fertilizer, tillage.”

Increasingly popular on large farms are app-based systems for watering. There is much more to irrigation than turning on the pumps. Tony Belcher, selling systems for Koviack Irrigation and Farm Services, based in Three Rivers, Mich., talked about the advances in management of the pivots, the large watering superstructures with an average radius of about one-quarter mile, but that can be much longer.

They are what produce the crop circles that you see when flying over farm country. And they are considered a highly efficient form of irrigation. Belcher explained that using smart phones, farmers can monitor soil moisture, weather conditions like temperature, precipitation, and solar radiation. And using Google or Apple apps, they can monitor and control how, when and where watering happens.

The term for all of this is precision farming, which relies heavily on global positioning systems that link up with sensors and computer systems. A tractor with a GPS sensor determines location in a field by triangulating the signals sent from GPS satellites orbiting about 12,5000 miles above the Earth. Knowing exactly where it is in a field allows farmers to manage hundreds or thousands of acres the way you or I might manage a garden.

The technology is amazingly accurate. Large GPS controlled sprayers with booms extending 100 feet or more can limit overlap in fields to just two inch. GPS units, by providing precise locations allow farmers to apply varying degrees of chemicals and even mix chemicals anywhere in a field. And these are often large fields — thousands of acres, all segmented into separately managed zones.

This has benefits beyond the farm. The more accurately chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are applied to a field, the less run off into lakes, streams and rivers. It´s good for farmers, less expense. And it´s good for the environment.

Email Mickey Hirten at mickey@lansingcitypulse.com.