Technology Meets Water and Dirt

December 9, 2009

A photo of cotton being grown on one of Monsanto's research farms

Last week, I rode with two colleagues from work over to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. We visited the Melvin Price Lock & Dam #26 just south of Alton, and then went on to Monsanto’s research farm at Jerseyville. One colleague, Nick, was working on a story about the lock and dam and its critical importance to agriculture (posted here); the other, Tyne, was developing a video feature on the research farm. As for me, well, I was on the trip mostly for the research farm visit, to listen to employees talk about what they do. They’ll be featured in a post in a few weeks.

What struck me about both visits was technology – two very different technologies that are critical for agriculture.

The technology that built Lock and Dam #26 was a collection of engineering and design disciplines. The lock is enormous; I didn’t ask the tour guide for the statistics on the amount of concrete used in construction but to see what’s constructed is to wish you had the contract for the concrete. (If you have to know, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brochure says it used 800,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the structure.) (That’s my home driveway times 123,000.) Technology meets water.

I can recall the controversy when it was constructed – some said it wasn’t necessary; it wasn’t environmentally sound; it would damage the river system; it would cost too much. But one thing is clear – it works. And it’s critical for agriculture in the Midwest, because the Mississippi River is the main means of transporting grain south to the Port of New Orleans for export. Little known fact: this was as true 200 years as it is today, and one of the reasons the British sought to capture New Orleans in the War of 1812 – to prevent American farmers from shipping their crops.

From that huge structure on the river, we drove east to a Monsanto research farm. Here, the technology is decidedly different – for one thing, you don’t see it. It’s all contained with seeds.

It’s disconcerting to walk into greenhouses in December and see cotton and canola blooming, and corn, soybeans and wheat looking like they do in the early summer. A number of different research programs are underway, including improving nitrogen uptake (and use less fertilizer or use it more efficiently) and insect protection. All of these programs are aimed at improving yields and helping farmers succeed.

The people who work here are highly trained, many with PhDs in biology, entomology and other disciplines. And they get their hands dirty. A lot. We watched one group working in a greenhouse doing everything from checking soil conditions and temperature to taking cuttings from corn plants. Another group bagged seed for shipment to another research facility for testing. One team talked about planting 30,000 seeds – by hand. And they did it in a day.

Technology meets dirt.

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