Swarthy from a North Carolina summer sun, Travis Lassiter sat in the air-conditioned cab of a John Deere tractor, flipped a switch, revved the engine and tapped an icon on a touch screen.
The employee of Central Crops research station in Clayton — one of North Carolina's 18 state-run farms — flicked the steering wheel to an upright position. He leaned back, crossed his arms and smiled.
"We're at sub-inch," he said, referring to the accuracy of the Trimble Navigation auto-steer system installed in the machinery.
The GPS-driven technology keeps tractors almost perfectly aligned in a field with minimal interaction from the driver.
"If you called me, I could text you," he said. "It's hands-free. If you dozed off, the end of row alarm goes off. If there's a rock in the field, I can mark it. If there's a hole in the field, I can mark it."
The John Deere tractor Lassiter drove was one of four new tractors showcased at an event Monday. About 100 members of the public, superintendents of research stations, leaders of the agriculture technology industry and professors at N.C. State University had the chance to ride in the tractors.
Last year, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture purchased 37 new tractors, some of which have auto-steer, along with several other pieces of equipment, such as precision irrigation systems and sprayers.
A $5 million appropriation from the legislature made the long-awaited upgrade possible.
"Auto-steer GPS will allow us to bring a level of precision to our research stations that was not there before," said Sandy Stewart, a crop scientist with N.C. State.
When Steward began his current work in 2011, the average tractor on the research stations was built in 1991: "On research farms, you gotta stay on the front end of this technology, and we had begun to lag behind because of funding issues."
Auto-steered tractors have been around for the better part of a decade, but not at North Carolina's research farms, which test and develop newer and better varieties of plants and farming methods.
"Basically we are trying to advance different plant varieties that might be more drought-tolerant, plant varieties that might ship better," said Andrea Ashby, the department's assistant director. The knowledge will help farmers meet future food demands, she said.
For instance, crack-resistant mountain tomatoes were developed in North Carolina on a research farm, and are now grown all over the country. Many other sweet potato varieties and most of the world's tobacco varieties were grown and tested on a North Carolina research farm, she said.
"It's Greater Efficiency"
North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, who spoke at the event, emphasized the need to improve efficiency to be able to solve world hunger problems.
"When I look at the demand for worldwide food," he said, "I wonder, 'How do we meet that worldwide demand?' "
Technology, he said, can help: "We are going to do the research. We are going to meet the demand."
Andy Meier, a superintendent of Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro, said the auto-steer equipment would make a tremendous difference in his operation. For years, his operation has kept track of their data manually. Now the tractor will do much of it automatically.
"It's greater efficiency, more accurate," he said. "It allows us to correlate planting data with fertilizer requirements with yield data."
In other words, it helps farmers use the least amount of seed and fertilizer for the biggest harvest.
"It's been a huge investment," he said. One auto-steer system can cost $20,000, and that is on top of a tractor that could cost between $60,000 and $100,000. But the rewards, some say, are higher.
Richard Linton, dean of the college of agriculture and life sciences at N.C. State, spoke at the event and alluded to a study by University of California, Davis. The study cites a high return for money put into agriculture research.
"For every $1 spent on agriculture research, $19 are made," Linton said. "This is a great investment in our economy."