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The Real Economy

High-tech farm investment unphased by election

David Gura Feb 2, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: We’re just two days away from the Nevada Republican caucus. So let’s continue our Marketplace election series, The Real Economy, with the story of a state that is essentially the economic opposite of Nevada. It’s a state that relies on farming. And with high crop prices, farmers aren’t saving — they’re paying down debt, buying more land, and investing in new equipment.

Marketplace’s David Gura takes us now to the economic bright spot that is Nebraska.

David Gura: Tom Joyce caters to some pretty high-end clients. 

Tom Joyce: I tell our salesmen we’re dealing with millionaires every day, and you make sure you treat them well.  I mean, like you’re the maitre d’ of a nice restaurant.

Joyce manages the Plains Equipment Group. It’s a John Deere dealership, just off I-80. Each piece of merchandise he sells — a new tractor, a new combine — costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think of it this way:

These guys buy Lamborghinis and Ferraris every year. They’ll buy a $250,000 machine that they’ll use for six weeks of the year.

Mark Jagels: We’re looking at a 16-row John Deere planter.

Mark Jagels keeps one of those forest-green farm Ferraris in his equipment shed. He grows corn and soybeans in Davenport, Neb., about 80 miles away.

Jagels: Quiet. It is totally quiet. And I mean, we’re sitting there, probably half throttle. And you don’t hardly hear anything.

The tractor is Bluetooth-enabled, with satellite radio and air conditioning. It’s computerized, with GPS.

Jagels: The monitor here, that is everything from our guidance and controls the planter and everything, right there.

In the winter, Jagels programs the system with his laptop. He tells it what to plant, and where; how much fertilizer goes on a line of crops. Then, in the springtime:

Jagels: I find that field, I bring up that line. Boom! It’s right there, and you know, you should never be off more than one or two inches, as you’re driving through the field.

Jagels says farming isn’t as physical as used to be. It requires less labor. Today, a tractor like this one can pretty much drive itself.

Jagels: I can flip the steering wheel up. I can sit here. I can answer emails. I can do whatever I want to.

And according to Jagels, there’s a lot less waste. In the kitchen, he shows me a printout, with data from the tractor.

Jagels: I planted soybeans. The average rate was 169,390 seeds per acre. It gives me the total seeds applied and the total acres I planted.

And that kind of information, Jagels says, that efficiency, is worth every penny.

I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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