PITTSBURG — Farmers, ranchers, and scientists came together this week for a three-day workshop — the first of its kind in the area — to brainstorm and learn about ways they might be able to benefit from each other’s work.
The event, called Farmers Accelerating Research in Materials Science (FARMS) and hosted at Block22 in downtown Pittsburg from Feb. 26 to 28, was a joint venture organized by Pittsburg State University’s Kansas Polymer Research Center (KPRC) and Virginia Tech’s Macromolecules Innovation Institute.
Tim Dawsey, executive director for the advancement of applied science and technology at the KPRC, said about 60 people registered for the event, and there were also some additional walk-in attendees. Tim Conner, division director for the National Institute of Food & Agriculture, Dawsey said, did a great job kicking things off with a keynote speech.
“He talked about user-inspired research, and that’s what we’re really about,” Dawsey said. “It’s all around the user. So we’ve got the producers, the farmers, the livestock producers, everybody in here today. So we’re going to be listening; I think it’s going to be great.”
Chad Epler of Epler Farms, Inc., located just west of Columbus, said “curiosity, for one” brought him to the FARMS workshop, “because this is something new that they’re trying to do — connect researchers, scientists, to farmers and see what the problems are, you know, out in the field.”
Epler said Thursday morning that the workshop was not far enough along to draw many conclusions yet, but he was anticipating he might hear some interesting information during breakout sessions planned for later in the day.
“I’m looking forward to the segment on crop issues and then there’s one about chemical issues, because that’s something we face all the time from, you know, where it starts at the top with the federal government and regulations and whatnot,” Epler said. “So, you know, I’m looking forward to those things.”
Epler’s family has farmed since the 1950s, he said. Although he has been a farmer his whole life, however, Epler said technology’s impact on farming has been evident even over the course of a shorter time period.
“I’m a former ag teacher and came back to the family farm, and in the time that I’ve been back, which has been seven years, there’s a huge difference in technology just in that short of time, and, you know, I foresee in the next seven years technology’s going to advance even more,” Epler said. “But it’s up to the farmers, the growers, to decide — are they going to use technology or not? I think it can be very beneficial.”
Research at the KPRC has led to discoveries of methods for creating batteries from coffee grounds, rigid foams from chicken fat, and flexible foam from soybean oil — the latter of which is now in use by Ford Motor Company, among others. Other topics discussed at the FARMS workshop included uses for robotics and automation in farming.
“We’re looking at affordable and flexible robotic technology,” said Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech, who was one of the speakers at the event.
Niewolny noted that Virginia Tech researchers have worked with Blacksburg, Virginia-based Torc Robotics.
“We’re working to enhance mobility for farmers,” Niewolny said. “We’re co-designing the technology with farmers all along the way, and we’re developing these different exoskeleton suits, and that’s really been the thrust of our work.”
28-year-old Taylor Overman, who grew up working on his family farm located south of Liberal, Missouri, said he has seen technology lead to changes in agriculture during his lifetime.
“My dad, when the GPS tractors came out he’s like ‘Oh, I’ll never not drive a tractor,’ and then we got it, and then when the GPS goes out now he’s like ‘I don’t know how to drive a tractor,’” Overman said, jokingly. “Not really, but you know, it’s a learning curve.”
Overman said he was interested in the potential benefits for farmers of robotics and automation.
“I’ve got a boy with another boy coming,” he said. “You know, my dad spent hours and hours and hours in the tractor, just sitting there driving the tractor. If there’s something that could automate that and let me spend my time building the business, growing it, and also spending time at my boys’ ball games, that would mean a lot to me.”
Because of current economic conditions, Overman said, farmers are looking for new and innovative ways to make money, which could include new ways to grow things other than the corn, soybeans and wheat that are typically the major crops grown in the region.
“You’re either a small farmer that can do the farm-to-fork deal, you know maybe some direct market beef and stuff like that, but as far as corn, you know, you send it to Cargill, beans go to ADM [Archer Daniels Midland] and I mean that just — there’s not really a lot of marketing options right now,” he said.
One interesting idea he had heard about at the FARMS workshop, Overman said, which might be more aligned with the research focus of the KPRC than robotics, was a biodegradable net wrap for hay.
“Something that could maybe last for I think she said 18 months,” Overman said. “So that would be almost perfect, you know, you could store it, use it, and then it maybe degrades. That way if a cow eats it, it’s not going to be in their stomach for who knows how long.”
Based on the positive feedback from FARMS workshop attendees, Dawsey said he was looking into the possibility of organizing a similar event about a year and a half from now.