Do Robotic Tractors Dream of Digital Cornfields?*

A farm implement company now offers an “AutonomousHarvest System” that requires no human operator for the tractor pulling the grain wagon. In another intriguing video, a huge international corporation shows its version of a future farm, complete with “Minority Report touch screens” as well as tractors equipped with multiple computers and a Siri voice that will contact your nearest mechanic before you even know the implement has a problem.  As I think back to my teen years when I shivered on a cabless tractor in cold drizzle, these Brave New World apps have definite appeal.
Last Monday after work, I drove to my brother’s farm to finish picking tomatoes and peppers in our family garden. The frenzy of a Midwest harvest lined the country roads. Farmers in huge machines left trails of dust across fields of corn and soybeans, and loaded wagons formed silhouettes against the glowing sunset. I reflected on harvests past, when the smell of diesel hung in the chilly air and the sound of grain bin dryers whined in the distance.
Dad met me in front of the old farmhouse and let me know that the cylinder head on the combine had bad bearings, so my brother was driving it in from the field. You can’t “take the farm off Dad” and as a matter of fact, you can’t take him off the farm either, so he still helps drive wagons during the harvest. “We’ve hauled nearly as much corn in the past few days as old Fred harvested during the entire fall of 1939,” Dad said. “He hired out to pick corn by hand for a neighbor and by Thanksgiving, he’d picked 4,400 bushels. Maybe 260,000 ears or so—by hand. Told me he got paid $175.”
My brother did what he could with the blown bearings, but today’s harvester machines look like science fiction transformers and cost as much as a quarter million dollars or more. By the time the mechanic came, we grabbed a flood light to go along with the patience that any farmer needs when quality harvesting time is ticking away. The last time I worked on tractors, disco music was in and Nixon was recently out, so they declined my offer to help with the mechanical surgery.  My brother eased me into an alternative move. “Maybe you could see what there is to eat in the house.” Mom’s fresh baked bread, hot pepper cheese, and a brew seemed to satisfy the wrench pullers.
In Ray Bradbury’s classic, Dandelion Wine, the cantankerous grandpa complains when a company develops lawn grass that will stop growing after reaching the perfect height and color. He wants to hear the mower, smell the freshly cut grass, and see the rogue dandelions that signify the start of summer. I reckon Bradbury didn’t mow as many lawns as I have, but I see his point.
Most farmers will continue searching for tech that makes their hard work safer, easier, and maybe more economical. They might sit at home—Captain Kirk style—at control panels as robotic machinery brings in the harvest. But some farmers will slip out to the fields, crunch on a soybean to see if it “tests well,” and turn off the tractor autopilot so they can drive the harvest home. We’ll see if they develop robots that bring snacks and beer out to the machine shed. 
by dan gogerty (*title reference to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; photo from

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