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Agriculture: A Field without Boundaries
by Rod Johnson

It seems natural that the first practical barbed wire should have been perfected and manufactured at DeKalb. This small city, sixty miles west of Chicago, was located at the edge of the prairie, that vast treeless expanse where the need for fencing was most acute.
Fencing Frontiers: The Barbed Wire Story

It seems like every hundred years or so, something stands out. Something that shatters the rules of the known and leads us into the brave new world of the unknown. In 1776, the writing of the Declaration of Independence was that event, and it’s now a cherished symbol of liberty. Slightly less than a hundred years later (the first patent was issued to Joseph Glidden in 1874), barbed wire surfaced. It served as a turning point in the taming of the West. As it was adopted, the wide-open spaces became less wide, less spacious and less free. And of course, the days of the free roaming nomads, we commonly refer as cowboys, were numbered.

In the 1980s, the first commercial applications for GPS took hold, and in 1996 President Clinton declared it a national asset. Today, barbed wire is no more relevant than the stacking of stones to mark a property line. GPS technology is changing rapidly, and its impact growing exponentially. Of course, we know about auto-steer tractors and combines. We know how GPS figures into the mapping of fields as a means to enhance productivity and fertility. But I wonder, what is the next big thing?

Today, I’m thinking of the year 2020 – a mere twelve years away. Why 2020? Because that's when I turn 65 years old. Oh, I’m not planning on retiring, or any foolishness like that. But I do ponder what agriculture will look like. Who will be the players, and who will have closed up their shop? What will the average farm size be? What will the role of biofuels be? Will it achieve the stated goals of the President or will it be derailed along the way? And what about the world economy? Will China be the epicenter of the world as some now speculate? What will food be like and who will dominate that landscape?

My guess is, “We ain’t seen nothing yet.” For instance, I believe the emergence and affordability of “everything GPS” will become every bit as important as that of biotechnology. Both literally change everything. One works with DNA, the other with inches. One is focused on realigning structures; the other is about defining space. One is pushing the fast-forward button on evolution, the other is pushing the fast-forward button on our interfaces with geography.

For instance, I envision that...

  • Farmers will farm sections of land contiguously, despite having multiple landlords. GPS will enable sections to be assembled and disassembled with relative ease.
  • I envision that farmers that embrace GPS will reap huge rewards in areas relating to labor costs, productivity and efficiency.
  • I envision that GPS will force farmers to think, act and react differently

Within the next 12 years, the analogue world of “trust me” will be replaced by digital equivalent of “show me.” And just as the invention of the barbed wire transformed the landscape of physical spaces a hundred years ago, GPS is re-engineering that process today.

The year 2020 is just around the corner, one can only prepare for what might come.
Good luck!!!

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