farm equipment

You won’t find a horse and plow on my farm – here’s why

Justin Durdan’s Illinois farm is a smart farm. Today, he’s using high-tech tools his great-great-grandfather couldn’t have imagined. Justin, a fifth-generation farmer, grows GMO corn and Non-GMO soybeans with his dad near Lostant, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. 

Great-great-grandpa’s mind would be blown if he saw my farm today

Farming has changed a lot since my great-great-grandfather started farming this land more than 100 years ago. Equipment is bigger and smarter. Data-rich information is right at our fingertips, allowing us to understand our fields better than ever.

But even though the way we farm looks very different today, our goal has always been the same: take care of the land today so it can be enjoyed tomorrow. In short, sustainable.

There’s a lot of talk around the word sustainability today — sustainably farmed, sustainably sourced, sustainably raised. Sustainability is a word that’s hard to define, probably because everyone has their own definition and ways of being more sustainable. As a fifth-generation Illinois farmer, my definition of sustainability is simple: Responsibly grow a successful crop today while protecting the land, water and air for future generations.
In a lot of ways, technology helps me put this definition into action.

Then vs. now: smart seeds

Circa 1916, farmers had few choices when it came to what they could plant. Seeds came from the previous year’s crops and many wouldn’t even make it out of the ground because they weren’t viable. Add in weeds and pests that try to overtake the plant, and you can see how it was a battle to end up with a crop to harvest.

In comparison, today we have lots of choices. Multiple seed companies develop seeds with specific traits that will grow best in my central Illinois fields. I can choose who I buy seed from and what kinds of seeds will work best on our farm. For example, if a field has soil that doesn’t retain water as well, I can purchase seed that can tolerate drought.

Then vs. now: same great topsoil

Now here’s one thing that hasn’t changed, Illinois has some of the best soil in the world. But our rich topsoil is a finite resource that’s vulnerable to erosion, which is why I try to limit as much as possible how much time I spend in my fields.

Fortunately, today’s tractors have gotten smarter in the field. Similar to cars, modern tractors are held to EPA clean air standards and are more fuel efficient than farm equipment in the past. This results in decreased fuel costs and air emissions. We also use GPS to reduce the times we drive over the same spot in the fields.

Then vs. now: precision

Great-great-grandpa’s most used resource was labor — manual labor that tilled the fields with a horse and plow. Today, my greatest resource is technology and the ability to be precise with everything I do, from planting to the nearest inch to applying only the smallest amounts of chemicals needed.

Speaking of chemicals, to ensure my crops get off to a healthy start and keep growing through harvest, I need to use fertilizers and pesticides.However, I only use these sparingly, according to government regulations and after being certified to properly apply chemicals.There are two reasons why:

  • I live, eat and drink near my fields, so I want to protect the environment and keep it safe for my family and me — especially the water.
  • It doesn’t benefit me economically to use more of a chemical or fertilizer than what’s needed because that’s money unnecessarily spent.

For example, to get my fields ready for planting this spring, we used only three ounces of fertilizer, about three shot glasses full, on an acre — a piece of land about the size of a football field.

For the remainder of the planting season, here’s where variable rate technology (VRT) comes in. VRT allows me to target the exact areas in my field that may need more fertilizer or that may be susceptible to weeds or insects later in the growing season. It’s precision farming. 

As the name says, this is a technology that enables me to vary the rate of application. For instance, if I’m applying a herbicide and I know there are specific areas in my field that aren’t battling the weed I’m spraying for, I can use this technology to reduce or even shut off spraying in those areas.Years ago, dad or granddad would have had to spray the whole field, using more chemicals overall.

Then vs. now: space-age mapping

Back in the day, farmers would walk the fields and spot check by sight how the crops looked to have an idea what harvest would bring. Again, GPS helps us today. This time it’s to create yield maps — GPS images of the field and the yields that are harvested from each field. Instead of walking the fields, I’m at my computer or tablet analyzing the data that’s collected. I combine this data with the information I get from monitoring soil nutrients to see what worked best and where we can make improvements.

Then and now: always striving to be better

Some might say I’m a data-geek, but all this data collection and analysis makes me a better farmer — I can reduce inputs and lower costs. Plus, going into the next growing season with a data-driven game plan helps me minimize my impact on fields and the environment.

I’m not sure what great-great-granddad would make of all this technology, but in the end our motivations are the same — a love of this life we call farming and the satisfaction of seeing a crop grow from planting to harvest for a job well done.

Justin Durdan

About Justin

My wife Rachel and I live in Utica with our three children: Ella, Ian and Phoebe. I farm with my dad in Streator.

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