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Farming that puts Google maps to shame


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    Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal tastes No. 2 Dent corn.

    - Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

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    A high-tech sprayer tricked out with Raven Industries technology. Raven Industries is based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

    - Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

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    Grain silos on Keith Alverson's farm in South Dakota. Alverson farms No. 2 Dent corn, to be used in ethanol and livestock feed.

    - Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

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    No. 2 Dent corn is used mostly for ethanol and livestock feed. After tasting some, Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal describes it as "chalky."

    - Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

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    Keith Alverson, a sixth-generation farmer outside of Sioux Falls, S.D., talks to Kai Ryssdal about the technology he uses to farm corn.

    - Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace

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    A high-tech, location-tracking device made by Raven Industries and installed on farm equipment to help boost productivity and reduce costs.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

Flying into Sioux Falls, “you can see so much of their economic and social history just on the way in” says The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows. From the air, you can see the city’s history of growth from the old downtown to a ring of new suburban housing developments and big-box malls.

Beyond that, says Fallows, is “mile after mile of this perfectly square grid work.” A lot of it is corn, and also wheat. And it’s in one of those cornfields that we find another reason that Sioux Falls is the center of your economic universe.

Keith Alverson is a sixth-generation farmer who lives 45 minutes outside of Sioux Falls. The corn he grows looks for all the world like what you’d find at the super market but the stuff he grows, No. 2 Dent, isn’t the sweet corn you or I would eat.

It’s been grown for decades as livestock feed.

But now, "most of our corn goes to the local ethanol plant," says Alverson.

One of the largest ethanol companies in the country is based in Sioux Falls, named POET, and there are plenty of others throughout the state. Alverson says the ethanol plants created a whole new market for the corn he and his family was growing.

“I might not be back on the farm if not for the opportunities that ethanol and things like renewable energies have created," he says.

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Alverson’s farm is 2,500 acres -- about 4 square miles. He farms with just three other guys -- and something else: Satellite navigation. 

The GPS he uses is way more accurate than the one you’d get in your car. Alverson uses it to map where he plants each seed in the spring – some areas are better for growing than others. When he goes back to that field to lay down fertilizer, Alverson can put it down within a sub-inch of the seed.

The technology comes from a company called Raven Industries. They’re based in Sioux Falls, also. But they’re selling to farmers in Kazakhstan, Brazil, across Europe and in Asia, and of course, in North America. And a satellite they’ve got orbiting 12,000 miles up in space is helping Alverson steer 56,000 pounds of tractor and combine to the exact spot he wants it.

But more importantly, it’s helping Alverson do more with less.

And even though the equipment he’s using has changed, Alverson’s able to do something that every generation of Alverson’s before him have done – kept the farm profitable and working for the next generation.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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