Once farming was hot, dirty job -- but machines have changed all that

By , Staff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

america's farmers, without those bright red and green machines they ride across their fields, would not be the acknowledged wonders of the agriculture world.

True, plant genetics, chemical advances -- including fertilizers and pesticides -- and other factors have played their part. But today's farmer in the United States is wedded to his combine or cotton picker -- at least until the factory turns out the next model.

Some of these machines are as expensive and almost a big as a house. Some are, in fact, small factories.

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Today's complex cotton, tomato, or grain harvester picks, sorts, and loads the crop, then spreads out the residue as mulch for the next crop, or gathers it separately for animal feed.

Every year, these harvesters wipe out more jobs as their mechanics and electronics become more sophisticated and efficient. Some come with their own computers.

A few years ago, driving a tractor at planting or harvest time was a hot, dirty, noisy job. The "rolling factories" used on many large farms today are remarkably quiet, usually air-conditioned, and equipped with elaborate safety devices.

Tom Mershon, who farms 4,200 acres in Oak Grove, Mo., is a prime and proud example of what the family farmer can accomplish by utilizing modern agricultural machinery.

Mr. Mershon has his two teen-age sons, Bruce and Tim, helping after school -- and before they go off to college. His wife, Janet, is a full-time partner in the business. Between them, they look after 1,100 head of cattle and 800 hogs (down from the 2,400 hogs they were feeding when pork prices were higher).

This year, the Mershons planted 900 acres in soybeans, 530 acres in wheat, 500 acres in corn, and 240 acres in milo or sorghum. Part of the crop feeds the stock, part goes to market.

Key to the Mershon operation is an expensive and constantly upgraded array of tractors, cultivators, planters, sprayers, and harvesters, along with specialized trailer trucks for hauling grain or animals away for sale.

The two John Deere tractors are worth $40,000 each -- and earn their way with articulated four-wheel drive that delivers tremendous pulling power and maneuverability without compacting the soil.

The latest purchase is a $26,000 John Deere planter bought last December. Folded up, it fits neatly through farm gates. Then, at the touch of two buttons in the tractor cab, it unfolds to its full 12-row width.

Tom Mershon finds he can pull the new planter with the same tractor at the same speed as for the six-row planter it replaces. Last year he planted 11 acres an hour. The new rig plants 21 in the same time.

"That switch," he explains, "eliminated an $8,500 planter, a $20,000 tractor, one man to drive the extra tractor, and that much extra diesel fuel."

The savings on planting time and costs paid off handsomely after a hail storm ruined some of the crops. "Within a week after that storm," said Mershon, "we'd baled the ruined wheat to clear the ground and replanted 440 acres in soybeans."

he Mershons are convinced that it pays to upgrade their machinery regularly. But, along with every other farm, this one is feeling the pinch of steeply rising costs for inputs, such as fuel, seed, fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides. Prices for beef, pork, and grain were all below par in early July. Yet there was no way to stall the 14 to 16 percent interest payments on total borrowings of $400,000. So the Mershons were thinking about holding off on some of their equipment purchases this year.

Farm equipment manufacturers' sales slumped in the first quarter of 1980; total tractor sales for this year's first four months were down 29.2 percent from the previous year.

Bill Kelsey, public relations director for Toronto-based Massey-Ferguson Ltd. , saw no likelihood of sales picking up quickly. "The gap between the farmer's cost of producing and selling has narrowed so much," he said, "that in some cases it costs the farmer more to produce his crop than he gets for it today."

Massey-Ferguson's answer is to provide financing to farmers at 13.75 percent -- and to build up its dealership services. One of the most popular innovations in the company's computerized "E-COM" (emergency communications) network. This means a dealer can go to a farm, find out what parts are needed, and use his portable computer terminal to order parts and have them dispatched immediately.

International Harvester (IH) is in slightly less trouble than its chief competitors in the $11 billion farm equipment field, John Deere and Massey-Ferguson. While Deere and Massey-Ferguson are cutting back production. IH is working overtime to build up inventories depleted by a six-month strike.

But, like its competitors, IH is offering attractive financing terms. And it has its own dealer-operated computer program. IH's program lets individual farmers type details of their farming operations into a computer terminal and out comes advice on when and what to raise based on previous years, along with estimates for the time and costs involved.

IH also is launching a major promotional drive to sell its lates planter, which incorporates an air pressure system combined with elaborate electronic monitoring to give farmers more accurate control of seed planting. For instance , the new Cyclo air Planter precisely spaces 12 soybeans per foot at 8 m.p.h. -- or 8,400 single beans per minute per row, up to 12 rows at a time.

Such speed and precision are important to farmers when profit margins are extremely narrow -- and when crop yields can drop by up to two bushels an acre per day if planting is not done within the few days which are optimum in any particular area.

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