Kane County farmers share how technology has improved their industry
At the start of my career, I spent as much time around farmers and their families as with anyone else on my news beats.
That comes with the territory covering community events, school districts, township boards and county issues west of Randall Road and the Tri-Cities. It included hundreds of farm acres and a high percentage of rural families.
Even though that was 46 years ago, I have a misguided picture that farming somehow remains similar to that time.
The truth is that technology has changed farming as much or more than any other industry. And it is changing rapidly, much like our computers, phones and digital interactions seem to upgrade daily.
It's time to wipe out my former visions of farming. Tech-savvy farmers spend most of the day analyzing data on computer screens inside their farm vehicles, homes or phones.
"GPS has been the game-changer technology," said Chris Gould, a third-generation operator of Gould Farms off Perry Road near Maple Park. "The first benefit is 'auto steer' for harvesting or tillage. You can work 15 hours a day and feel better than you did before when working 12 and having to steer your vehicle all day."
Gould added that the equipment knows through GPS to avoid overlapping areas when spraying or planting. "Not every field is a perfect rectangle or square, and the machine automatically turns off now in spots that are already planted or sprayed if you are turning at a funny angle."
It's a huge savings for farmers when they aren't using excess chemicals or wasting seeds. But it also gives them a better handle on their yields.
"Yield monitors are important because a combine harvester going through fields now has a sensor," Gould noted. "It knows how much grain per acre is coming from specific spots, and it produces yield maps."
Farmers use the data from that technology and computing power to generate yearly yield maps for comparison.
"We now know how a certain area has done over the years and why some part of a field is better than another," Gould said.
With that knowledge, a farmer can save money by not adding drain tiles or by cutting back seeding in soil that does not perform as well.
In the dairy farming world, robotic milking technology has helped farmers increase their yield, but a tagging system also keeps the cows healthier.
"Cows have a tag in their ear that tells you how many hours a day she spends ruminating, or how long when chewing their cud, as well as body temperature and when ovulating -- down to the hour," said Joe Engel of Luck-E Holsteins, a multi-generational family business in Hampshire.
"Tags pick up when a cow might be getting sick," Engel added. "Like an experienced farmer, the tag is going to notice a difference in the rumination."
When a calf is born, Luck-E Holsteins takes a small hole-punch out of the ear for a tissue sample sent to a lab for testing. That sort of DNA process reveals what the calf will be like as an eventual milk producer.
"It's just a real fast genetic process," Engel said. "When I was a kid, we were using the technology to produce more milk, but now it's about helping the cows live longer and healthier because the health traits have become a big thing.
"It's a disease-resistance measure because it reveals traits that will help the animal stay longer in the herd."
Today's farmers synch all the technology in their tractors and other vehicles to their mobile phones. They essentially have all of the data they need to know, even where their vehicles are in the field and how much fuel they have, right in their pockets.
But like those of us who have to turn to tech-savvy friends or family members to understand new updates or software upgrades, farmers experience a learning curve of their own.
"The biggest issue is the use of this technology is so seasonal," said Steve Pitstick, who farms through much of central Kane County but mainly in the Elburn area. "You use your phone every day, but with this, I hop in the tractor for a month in the spring, then forget everything I knew for that particular task and have to re-learn it in the fall.
"I'm getting really good at it on the last day of harvest," Pitstick added. "Then I forget it every spring, so that's the hardest challenge."
A positive factor of advanced technology, other than paying for itself fairly quickly, is drawing more families back into farming.
"I think there is a better farm economy now, and a new generation is coming back to the farm in the last 10 years that did not, post-1980s," Pitstick noted. "There was a lot of talk about the farming depression of the mid-'80s, and most farmers sent their kids back to school to do something else. But now they are coming back, drawn by the technology."
Restoring a flag's setting
There are plenty of nice settings for displaying the American flag throughout the area. Most are seen in our public parks, schools or government buildings.
But they also attract attention at our local VFW halls, which is why Boy Scout Troop 21 took on restoring the cannon and patio setting at the base of the American flag in front of Batavia Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1197.
Eagle Scout Timothy Mrenna has been heading the restoration effort, one the troop was hoping to finish last weekend if the weather cooperated. Timothy's father, Stephen Mrenna, is the troop leader.
VFW members appreciate the effort, but this project is one that more passersby may notice as well.
The Scout troop has been conducting a flag ceremony at the large flagpole to begin its Monday meetings. Scouts did it partly so more people would notice the ceremony and the renovation at the flag pole.
A recent ceremony had special meaning, as it was held on Sept. 11 during a day of remembrance for the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
Timothy Mrenna and Post member Larry Orsborn raised the flag while the troop stood at attention.
A closing trend?
Hopefully, this wasn't the ultimate jinx, but my wife and I walked past The Patten House restaurant in Geneva a couple of weeks ago and mentioned how glad we were that it appeared to continue to have staying power. A few days later, owners announced it was closing the historic building after a decade in business.
It made some on social media fear an unpleasant trend is unfolding in the wake of several area restaurants announcing closings. Sergio's Cantina and Osteria Bigolaro in Geneva are also shutting down. And even though it has been quite a few months, we liked the Chime and Stave restaurant in Campton Hills, which has also closed.
But it's not really a "trend." It's more of a reality. Look at almost any restaurant in the region, and it is quite likely in a building that a previous restaurant housed.
We know ZaZa Pizzeria has plans to open in the Osteria location near the end of the year. In a "one-closes, one-opens" scenario, Tapville Geneva is earmarked for the former Little Owl location across the street from Sergio's.
As for the former Chime and Stave restaurant site at 40W188 Campton Crossing Drive, which has had a few different operations over the years, we see Portofino Trattoria has already opened.
If the trend is anything, it's that restaurants come and go. We patronize many, some loyally, for years. But more so than other businesses, the economy, hiring and retaining employees, keeping quality chefs, and getting the word out about your business carry significant weight in the restaurant world.
Laughs for pets
Anderson Humane is counting on some laughs to help raise money for the animals in its care.
And it has a pretty good chance of doing so, considering the proceeds from the Second City comedy event titled "Comedian Rhapsody" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, at the Arcada Theatre in downtown St. Charles, will go to Anderson Humane.
General admission costs $45, and a 10-seat theater box costs $750. Links to ticket sales are available on the Anderson Humane website or Facebook page.
Challenge aids non-profits
The Geneva Chamber of Commerce is pushing for donations to the more than 50 non-profit organizations in its membership with the fourth Geneva Chamber Challenge.
The challenge is a 24-hour online donation campaign on Thursday, Sept. 28 for the non-profits, an event the chamber created during the COVID pandemic as a way to help agencies that could not stage their typical fundraising events. The campaign link is genevachamberchallenge.org.
Those who donate a certain amount or at a certain time and could win a gift basket with items donated by chamber members. Opportunities to win gift baskets will be announced throughout the day through Geneva Chamber of Commerce's Facebook account and on 95.9 The River radio station.