Alabama Gulf Coast farm manager Ray Bertolla still recalls old family accounts of the ribbing his older relatives endured when they became the first producers in the region to buy a tractor with rubber tires.

Those rubber tires may have seemed foolish to some, but they played an integral part in a technological revolution, powered by internal combustion engines, which transformed U.S. farming.

In the late 19th century, it took 35 to 40 hours of planting and harvesting just to produce 100 bushels of corn, according to an online fact sheet posted by the National Academy of Engineering. A century later, producing the same amount of corn required less than three hours — much of it carried out by farmers or employees working in air-conditioned tractors.

Now, one expert believes a new type of horsepower — analytical horsepower — is primed to change farming once again.

But instead of internal combustion, this transformation will be powered by on-farm data, which farmers will soon routinely use to make considerably more accurate and refined farming and business decisions, according to John Fulton, leader of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s row crops team and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering.

Fulton contends that this transformation could not have come at a more opportune time — a sentiment shared by his colleague, Max Runge, an Extension economist.

As Runge sees it, farmers over the last decade have been trapped in a kind of catch-22.

“Farming has become so efficient and productive that it requires fewer farmers to produce the commodities to meet our needs,” Runge says. 

He contends that farmers, by creating an exceptionally efficient production system, have become their own worst enemies, because this enhanced efficiency has also contributed to reduced farm profits.

The steady march of globalization and technological advances has also contributed, he maintains.  Within this highly efficient, integrated farming system, one bad decision can produce serious effects throughout a farming operation.