Production Blog

Life Automatically Moves Forward

Matt Wilde
By  Matt Wilde , Progressive Farmer Crops Editor
A driverless tractor and planter operated by Sabanto, a robotic farming company, seeds soybeans near Sac City, Iowa, last month. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Matthew Wilde)

ANKENY, Iowa (DTN) -- Recently, I was offered a window into the future, only to find myself reflecting on the past.

An assignment to revisit the topic of autonomous planting took me to the Bellcock farm near Sac City, Iowa.

I watched as one remote-controlled 60-horsepower Kubota utility tractor and a five-row Harvest International planter seeded soybeans, while another identical unit passed nearby on the way to a seed tender for a refill. Another unit sat idle as computer and equipment specialists solved a technical issue, and it eventually joined the planting party.

They were operated by Sabanto, a Chicago-based robotic farming company. Their dream is to solve agriculture's labor shortage by automating row-crop equipment. Several Iowa and Illinois farmers have hired the company to help plant this year. Other companies such as Raven Applied Technologies with AutoCart, which allows a farmer to operate a driverless grain cart tractor from the combine cab, are bringing similar innovations to the field.

Over the years, I've interviewed some of the most technological-savvy farmers as they planted with cabs full of monitors and precision agriculture equipment. But watching these tractors plant with no one behind the wheel was special beyond the "wow" factor.

I kept thinking how stunned my Dad would have been by these machines.

My father, Eugene, died on Sept. 17, 2019, at the age of 84. I loved Dad, but we didn't have a close father-son relationship where he dispensed life lessons while shooting hoops or playing catch. Most of our interactions occurred while working on our 160-acre livestock and crop farm, and most conversations were about what needed to be done and how to do it.

Agriculture, though, was one bond we shared. Toward the end of his life, I would provide crop updates, which always coaxed a smile. I explained how equipment size and technology have changed, which always amazed a man who used horses and small tractors, the largest being two Massey-Harris 44s, to farm.

As the remote-operated equipment each planted pre-determined sections of the field, I could imagine Dad shaking his head in amazement after telling him about it. I also couldn't help but wonder why Dad didn't embrace change or think about the future during his 43-year farming career. If Dad did, it might have saved the family farm that he poured his heart and soul into and cost $500 per acre to buy in 1953.

Dad was a hard worker, honest and kind, but hardly progressive when it came to agriculture. He farmed like he learned in the 1940s and early '50s and never changed. Here's a glimpse of the operation:

-- Cows were milked with Surge Buckets and milk was sold in cans.

-- Corn was seeded using a 1950s John Deere wire-check planter so it could be cross-cultivated to control weeds.

-- Horses were used for many farm tasks, such as cutting and raking hay and collecting oat bundles to thresh.

-- Corn was picked.

-- Sows were farrowed in large pens.

All of these activities occurred well into the mid-1980s when the operation finally went bankrupt. The bank sold the farmland and Dad retained the house, building site and equipment. He still milked 30-some head of cows until 1996, when he officially retired.

Yes, the bankruptcy occurred at the height of the '80s Farm Crisis and medical bills played a factor. But both likely took a back seat to business decisions. I can't recall another farm in the neighborhood, which started around the same time, that didn't survive the '80s.

For years, I stewed over the farm's demise. But I never asked Dad why he didn't upgrade to a pipeline and bulk tank to sell Grade A milk instead of Grade B to earn more money and make life easier. Or, why using real horsepower didn't end, and a combine didn't replace the corn picker and threshing machine to be more efficient. Or, why farrowing crates weren't adopted to protect babies from being crushed so more survived.

I had so many questions about past decisions, largely because of my inquisitive nature as an ag journalist and years of watching and reporting on the evolution of the industry. But I didn't want to upset him, so I kept these thoughts to myself. You can't change the past.

The future is another story. I now realize the best way for me to move on and honor Dad, is to embrace what he did do, instead of what he didn't.

My parents loved me, provided great food and shelter, a big yard to play in, a love for agriculture, a good worth ethic and more.

Agriculture won't stand still, it evolves like life. It's time I do the same and appreciate what was, instead of what could have been.

Read more details on autonomous planting here:….

Matthew Wilde can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde


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5/17/2020 | 4:57 AM CDT
I enjoyed reading your article as it brought back many memories of a similar way of life growing up on the farm. I really liked your message about special moments not being on the basketball ball court as we too had work to do and learned more about life and working with livestock and machinery and working alongside dad brought a closeness nothing else could. I would never have imagined in 1980 that I would look back 40 years and be thankful that We went through that as it brought with it a closeness to God that has been a blessing to me the rest of my life. Dads been gone for 11 years and Mom is in a nursing home sadly barely knowing anything but remaining on the farm and going through the struggles of the 80s has served me well as we are blessed with another generation carrying on the farm full time. God is good ALL the time.