Arkansas farmer is growing 20,000 acres on the ‘cutting edge’
Travis Senter Jr. has been “farming on the carpet” since he was three years old.
“I've always done this,” says Senter Jr. “I've always been involved, and I grew up right there, around every piece of equipment, it's all I'll ever known.”
Senter Jr., now 44 years old, is a third generation farmer in northeast Arkansas managing about 20,000 acres of cotton, rice, soybeans, and corn. He works closely with Travis Senter Sr., his 64 year-old father, who still hasn’t quite given up work on the farm — something of a family tradition.
“My grandfather passed away three years ago — he never officially retired,” says Senter Jr. “We were doing the obituary and they were saying, ‘Well we need to put in that he's a retired farmer.’ And I sit there, and I say, ‘He never retired because he was out every day.’”
The Senter family works around 20,000 acres of fields across a 40 mile spread of land. While this has grown over time, Senter Jr. says a lot of it is the exact same land his grandfather worked on, now renting from family members of the same landlords his grandfather grew up with.
One of the biggest challenges in managing a farm of that size is labor, but much like the Senter family, some of their laborers run generations deep.
“I don't think any farmer's going to say they have an abundance of labor,” says Senter Jr. “We have an extremely good crew. We've got some laborers working with us whose fathers were working for my father, and their grandfather worked for my grandfather.”
Future-focused with technology
Senter Jr. is a self-described “tech guy.” He builds all of his own computers, and manages networking for the farm’s internet connection, long-range wireless, and security cameras. He’s been quick to adopt new technologies as they’ve arrived. His father is a little more old-school, Senter Jr. says he uses an iPhone, but can’t turn on a computer to save his life. However, that hasn’t kept the farm away from the newest tech.
“[My father] loves everything we do, and is excited when I’m excited, because he knows it's going to make me do better with what we have,” says Senter Jr. “When I first showed him what we can do with autosteer and data collection, he's like, ‘OK, we need more.’ And then I ask ‘Why are we just putting it on two or three? Let's just put it on everything.’”
He’s been with John Deere’s programs for a long time, starting data collection with John Deere’s Apex Software then migrated to Operation Center many years ago, and has data in the cloud dating back to 2011. The agriculture industry’s recent ventures into autonomy and artificial intelligence is something he’s trying to be on the cutting edge of.
Recently, he’s been part of John Deere’s autonomous focus group, and has tested out some of the technology on his farm. Despite some initial pessimism due to the layout of his farm fields, Senter says the technology blew him away — performing much better than expected.
He says it may not completely solve labor shortages, however. With autonomy, Senter Jr. says farmers aren’t going to lose labor, instead it’s going to change how laborers work, shifting from regular field work to a focus on machine maintenance.
“With autonomy, you're not going to solve all the labor problems,” says Senter Jr. “There's one thing that I always stress: along with some of our challenges we deal with, every single day is a new adventure. With autonomy, you're going to have breakdowns, you're going to have problems — it's not going to be perfect.”
Many companies are turning to different subscription models with autonomous and artificial intelligence-based technologies. Senter Jr. says he’s familiar with subscription models like Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud, which he had some apprehension about. Now he says he appreciates the subscription because it’s always on the cutting edge and he doesn’t have to worry about it.
“As long as you're making sure that you get the right stuff and the cutting edge stuff, we don't mind paying a subscription for that,” says Senter. “I know there's a lot of farmers against it because they're going to feel like they don't own it. But if you can make sure you have everything right on the edge, working to give you a return on investment, then there's no reason not to do it.”
Technological advancement goes hand-in-hand with sustainability practices. Senter Jr. says his idea of sustainability is the ability to have things available when you need it, to improve yourself, and be able to produce another crop next year. This means anything working to improve for the next year, which could be as simple as installing a drainage tile that will last 100 years instead of rotting away in a few years.
“In my entire life, my father's entire life, his father's entire life, we've always tried to be sustainable and it's just been a buzzword lately because somebody can market it better than we can,” says Senter Jr. “Farmers are the most sustainable people we know. I want to make sure we continue to have the resources we have, and not do anything to harm us or the environment.”
The Senter farms recently purchased one of John Deere’s See and Spray precision sprayer to help reduce waste, and worked on precision land leveling. They’ve worked to improve irrigation and drainage using advanced Land Grading Equipment and technology. He also makes use of pump automation to remotely turn their irrigation wells on and off.
Beyond that, he has installed around 125 CropX soil moisture sensors to reduce water waste during irrigation. He was pessimistic about the sensors at first, starting with a couple, later upgrading to around 20 sensors throughout their fields. After that, he, with help from his son Trace Senter, installed one in nearly every field.
“For anybody that has asked me about moisture sensors, I'm all in,” says Senter Jr. “If you don't have one, get one, and if you can get one, get two, get as many as you can.”