Kickin’ Up The Dirt with Keith Gingerich
An intimate conversation with farmers from across the country
Talk about agriculture has reached a deafening roar — whether it’s ag tech and precision farming, the consolidation of the industry, or the impact of climate change on our fields — farming has struck a chord with the mainstream.
Yet farmers themselves are often missing from those conversations. Ag tech startups abound, but few of their employees have actual experience farming. Policy makers argue for agriculture and food legislation without having ever set foot on a farm.
It’s time farmers had a voice in the discussion. It’s time they had a say in the conversations that impact their livelihood in very real ways. That’s why we’re running Kicking Up The Dirt, a Q&A series that gives farmers a platform to speak about the changing world of agriculture.
Meet Keith Gingerich, the day-to-day operations manager and equipment operator of Gingerich Farms, a successful corn, soybean, and wheat farm in Lovington, Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @kGing21.
Keith joined Gingerich Farms after earning a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Systems Technology from Southern Illinois University. Keith is a third-generation farmer and has been with Gingerich Farms for 5 years.
The Gingerich Farm started in 1969, when brothers Ed and Elva Gingerich put their resources together to lease 770 acres of family farm land. As the farm grew, the brothers seized opportunities for growth and scale, and built a storage grain facility which allowed them to launch Gingerich, Inc., a grain-haul trucking business. With fast-paced growth, so too came the need for more labor and management, so Ed and Elva named their sons business partners, making Gingerich Farms a full family-managed operation.
Keith is our multi-tasking hero — he answered these interview questions from the cab of his tractor while harvesting this year.
Tell us a little about Gingerich Farms.
I am part of the third generation on the farm. The Gingerich Farm was started by my grandfather and his brother almost 50 years ago. I joined the farm just shy of five years ago to assist my cousin and uncle in the day-to-day operations and manage the increasing use of technology and data on the farm.
Primarily, we grow 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans, along with a few acres of wheat. We’re located in East-Central Illinois, right in the heart of Amish country. We use a combination of conventional and strip-till practices on the farm along with split-shot nitrogen programs.
What do you farm and why? How did you come to start working at Gingerich Farms?
Corn and soybeans are the primary crops in this area due to the abundance of rich, black, fertile soil. We don’t use any irrigation at this point, because we usually have an adequate or surplus of rainfall.
I have always been around the farm to some degree. I started helping my grandfather when he decided to “retire” from Gingerich Farms, and decided to focus on only farming his acreage. The first day of harvest stands out that year a little more. It was September 11, 2001.
During high school and college, I was doing fall tillage for Gingerich Farms and told myself that if I ever had the opportunity to continue to build on what grandpa started, I would do it. Although I had bigger plans post-college to pursue offers from major agricultural companies, I reflected back on those years and felt there was never a better time to do what I had promised myself.
What time does your day start and end during harvest season?
Our day usually starts between 6–6:30 am, and ends somewhere between 8–9 pm. It’s usually dependent on the moisture and stage of the crops, along with the weather. There are no set times.
Why do you farm? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I don’t know of many other professions that give you the variety that farming gives a person on a day to day basis, much less one year to the next. It can give you frustrations, but also can produce a great reward and feelings of accomplishment.
What advice would you give young farmer’s just starting out?
It helps to have a solid support system that understands the ups-and-downs of becoming a successful farmer. A trusted friend, significant other, or family members will be always be your biggest cheerleaders.
What new technologies today are proving to be the most promising for your work?
Currently, digital agriculture and drones are the most promising. We just need to design platforms that can easily be adapted to any size and type of operation.
How is the recent drop in corn prices impacting your ability to adopt new technology?
It has not really impacted us in adopting new technology, we are still buying on an as-needed basis. We have always been cautious on the prices, because ensuring ROI and budget always comes first. Second, we assess whether new technology will be a singular operation fix or if we can we use it on multiple pieces of equipment.
Are you bullish on new technologies that can introduce new efficiencies, or are you holding off on new investments when the commodity market is better?
For the most part, we are bullish if it fits into our operations model. Sometimes, you can buy new technology and think outside the box for of it was originally designed for, and it often benefits the whole operation.
What is your analysis of the precision ag market right now, especially in light of all of the recent Big Ag consolidation?
There seems to be a lot of “reinvent the wheel” ideas that all look similar. There are a few new ideas coming forward. The biggest one is ISO compatibility between brands/manufacturing companies. A lot of companies are responding to customer requests for features and improving upon what they already have.
Everyone seems to be hanging onto their hardware and software in some of the consolidation that is going on. Much of the technology has been easy to sell the last few years without the end user fully maximizing it to its full potential. Now, it will take relationships and great support to retain those customers. I believe that is what will set the really good companies apart from others.
What is your relationship to farm data? How do you use field maps, machine data, and other field data on a day-to-day basis?
Farm data is always a tough subject. A person can become overwhelmed with the information that we can now see from our implements, tractors, sprayers and combines. Equipment buying, field efficiency, and hybrid performance decisions can all be made from these maps, if it is accurate. Digital agriculture makes it easy for us to take almost any machine data or field map along with us to the field to troubleshoot problems that may have risen. Or, it can help us do a general scouting trip to understand where we are in the field and what we are looking at. A digital platform makes it easy to share information with others within the operation, and they always have it with them.
There has been a lot of talk about who own and controls field data being collected by your machinery and your precision ag tools. What is your stance on the data ownership issue?
Big data has been a scary term for a lot of people due to the numbers becoming overwhelming. I believe we are seeing the same acres, but we now have sensors, controllers and software that give us an HD look at what was always stored in our minds through observations. Now the equipment tells what we will see later before we can see it now.
I believe that field data is owned by the owner/operator of the land that is writing the check for the particular operation. It can also be separated into machine data vs. application data when it comes to custom work.
Whoever owns the equipment should have access to the machine part of the data and the landowner should own the application data. I do believe that there are manufacturers that are holding information back from farmers and only giving them the birds-eye view instead of letting the farmer break it down to something he can understand and make real genuine and informed decisions from.
Paint a picture of the Ag Tech industry in the next 10 years. What changes do you foresee happening?
I believe you will see more robots, remote and in-ground field sensors, chips and RFID type technology, as well as driverless technology. The speed at which it will advance will be dictated by government regulations, unfortunately.
Today, what we call “precision ag” is accurately inaccurate because farming is not an exact science and you rarely come up with the same result twice.
We will have to have sub-inch control on everything and take the human error element out for reporting. Micro-tracking of all inputs will happen as a result, which is good and bad. Driverless technology will be a result of a lack of consistent quality and quantity of farm labor.
Kickin’ Up The Dirt is a weekly Q & A series focused on sharing authentic perspectives and insights from American farmers. If you or a farmer you know would like to be interviewed for this series, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear your story.