It's a real-life field of dreams--a thriving operation that provides a peek at what farms might be like in the decades ahead. What's more, the Mitchells are finding there is truth in the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." Since they started building this technology into their farm near Waterloo, Iowa, they have drawn visitors and attention from across the world.
K.C. Ting, head of the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said this kind of technology is the leading edge of the next revolution in farm machinery--automation, or the use of smart machines that can make human-like decisions.
According to Clay Mitchell, their two tractors and combine do all of the steering, except on turns. They were the first farmers in the Midwest to use auto-steering, which keeps the equipment on a precise path, accurate to within less than an inch.
Because the Mitchells operate longer hours with auto-steering, they installed high-speed internet in the cab to allow them to check weather and grain prices. The entire farm is also linked to a wireless network, making it possible to control the grain-drying operation remotely from the cab.
No wonder Mitchell calls the tractor cab his "office on wheels."
"I was very excited after seeing their farm last fall," said Qin Zhang, U of I agricultural and biological engineer. Zhang has been working on autonomous machinery and networked equipment since the late 1990s--systems that he calls "computer integrated farming."
"The Mitchells are among the most progressive farmers in the country," added Tony Grift, also a U of I agricultural and biological engineer. "They're showing what forms of automation actually work reliably on the farm."
Grift and Mitchell have discussed working together on other futuristic projects. For instance, Mitchell is interested in a sensor developed by Grift that can measure the number of fertilizer particles coming out of individual nozzles. This sensor could make it possible for Mitchell to know when a single nozzle clogs.
"The sensor works very well in the lab," Grift said. "But we're taking it to the next level, and this is where Clay comes in."
Grift has also developed various ag robots, so Mitchell is talking to him about using a small robot to crawl through underground drainage pipes to locate breaks.
But do all of these futuristic ideas pay off? On the Mitchell farm, they have.
The precision of the new technology cut nitrogen by 30 to 40 percent and pesticides by 20 percent. Meanwhile, yields on the Mitchell farm rose and are now about 30-percent higher than the county average.
"Our approach has never been technology for its own sake," Mitchell said. "Our goals drive the inventions. Our goals are no different than that of other farmers. But we have some unique abilities to solve age-old problems."