GPS and steam-powered tractors: The evolution of modern farming

Photo courtesy of John Deere
Gary Moore will speak to how technology is changing agriculture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

In 1910, one farmer could feed himself and seven other people. One hundred years later, a farmer could feed himself and 154 other people. 

As part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series, Gary Moore, North Carolina State professor and president of the Association of Career and Technical Education, will address how the science of agriculture has led to this increase in productivity.

His talk, “From Moon Farming to Satellite Farming: How agriculture has changed to feed a hungry planet,” will begin at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. Moore has spoken at Chautauqua three times before.

“I will give 10 of the most significant events that have led to this increase of production,” Moore said.

Most people think that biotechnology and the use of agricultural chemicals are primary reasons for the productivity. But Moore indicated that the gasoline-powered tractor with rubber tires was as important as anything.

The early steam tractors required four or five people to operate them, Moore said.

“Early tractors had steel wheels with cleats,” he added. “As sturdy as they appeared, they actually didn’t work very well.”

The steel wheels, which were very cumbersome, chewed up the roads. The more modern, rubber-tired tractors could fit between the rows. Indeed, farming has changed. Early farm science came from the sky.

“Farmers would plant crops according to what the Farmers Almanac would say about the phases of the moon,” hoping to optimize crop production by coordinating plant germination with the force of the lunar cycle, Moore said.

Agriculture science has come a long way since then. In addition to looking back at what has influenced the farm of today, Moore likes to speculate on the logical extensions of today’s farming methods. Similar to the way corn has been used in ways beyond simple consumption, Moore anticipates that one day there will be “farmaceuticals,” food products that will contain agents not only to create good, healthy nutrition but to combat human illness. 

“Your bowl of corn flakes might also give you a dose of something to fight disease,” he said.

For now, among the amazing technologies influencing the efficiency of farming is satellite farming.

“Farmers can examine and plow fields using GPS technology,” Moore said.

Using global positioning technology, farmers can examine their fields by the square foot to learn about their nutrition and moisture condition. Using this information, the computers on a tractor can cultivate the ground and apply herbicides and fertilizer in the most efficient and effective ways.

“There is more computer power on a tractor today than there was on space capsules in the early NASA projects,” Moore said

An educator and agricultural scholar, Moore stresses that farming is a noble calling. It is about feeding the world. Moore tells students, “Whatever I teach you will be out of date in a few years. So you have to be smart, open-minded and ready to learn.”

Moore grew up on a livestock ranch in Central Texas. He has taught at The Ohio State University, Purdue University and Louisiana State University. He ended up at North Carolina State University in 1989.