Oh, for God’s sake, it’s yet another greenhouse alarm at 3 a.m. in the morning. The alarms announce themselves on my phone with a particularly annoying klaxon. But tonight, since none of the greenhouses have plants in them in late September, there’s no need to make the ten mile drive to the greenhouses. Huh. While I’m fumbling around for my glasses and my phone, I notice that I have a text message telling me that my bin fan is offline. Strange that both would occur at the same time. Or, that’s what I would have thought, if I hadn’t been sound asleep.

I’ve done a lot of electrical wiring, but I’m not much of an electrician. I’m familiar with the smell of burnt plastic. It’s not a pleasant smell, so the next morning my nose made sure that I approached the bin fan with no little trepidation. The electrical starter for the bin fan resembles one of those pictures of molten lava from some third-world country. This is not good

I have tried, tried so hard and for so long, to be one of those “early adopters” of high-tech farming. As my stomach roiled from the smell of burnt plastic and my mind reeled while trying to figure out how long the bin of wet corn would survive without producing smells of its own, it occurred to me that I have failed. Failed miserably by any measure. 

The guidance system on my planter is less than trustworthy. My rows look like the path a cow makes in the snow. I’ve testified to Congress about the value and importance of farm data, but the company I chose to handle my farm data imploded, taking my family’s first and only venture capital investment with it. I have a very fancy garage door opener that allows me to open my garage door from anywhere with my phone. Except my WiFi is inadequate, so I have to go in the house, reboot the WiFi, and then open the garage door. This strikes me as inefficient, so I just park outside.

This is all a preamble to the greenhouses, which are controlled by a state-of-the-art internet of things application that allows me to adjust the temperature with my phone from anywhere in the world, along with monitoring temperature and humidity wherever I might be. Until one morning last winter, at about one a.m., when one of the main components decided that no, it would not work in a humid environment. I spent the rest of the night manually operating the heaters with short jumper wires, a flashlight, and a lot of profanity. I would sleep for awhile in the pickup, and then head back in the greenhouse to either start or shut off one of the 30 heaters to maintain a temperature that would allow our plants and our business to survive. I finally left my station at about 3 p.m. the next day, planning a trip to Home Depot to buy a bunch of mercury thermostats that, while outdated, have the ability to, you know, actually work.

Come to find out, our system depends upon an electrical supply that is constant and never varies. By a millivolt. If some teenage girl three counties away plugs in her hair dryer, our system drops off line, and we all get alarms on our cell phone. If the timing of the alarms is any indication, teenage girls never dry their hair before midnight or after 6 a.m. When our bin fan, which until its recent immolation was also controlled by a device that works about as often as Congress decided to self-destruct, the effect on our electrical system was enough to kill the connection to our greenhouses. I love technology.

I am aware that my story may be unique. After all, any farm magazine is full of stories about the wonders of farm technology, precision farming, and the like. To read those stories, the connections between drones, satellites, various apps written by pencil necked geeks, and the farm headquarters are seamless, never fail, and increase productivity on the farm by a factor of at least ten. Not around here.

On the other hand, consider this whole rant a job application. Years ago, a neighbor had a business building and installing truck tarps. He printed a brochure using one of our trucks in his advertising. One of our neighbors pointed out that he had made a very wise choice. The assumption in the neighborhood was that if it could make it on our farm, it could make it anywhere.

Founders, venture capitalists, and agriculture investors, I stand ready to serve as your beta tester.

Blake Hurst is a farmer and greenhouse grower in Northwest Missouri.

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