Yvonne Holt: Gigantic farm equipment inspires many technological reflections

March 22, 2013 

I'm trying to wrap my imagination around the sheer size of farm equipment these days.

Tractors and equipment seemingly get bigger every year. Just a forage chopper blade attachment -- that brand-new one that looks very scary -- is at least 20 feet wide and 3 feet off the ground. The tires for the tractor are 6 feet in diameter and its cab is nearly two stories tall.

A recent field trip through my Crop Science Forages class at Merced College got me up close to these giant machines and opened up my imagination to an industry I never thought much about.

It took human beings to design these huge machines. These tractors are more than just nuts, bolts, engine, chassis and a gear shifter with a driver's seat. They are computerized, specialized and motorized to deliver precision results within an inch of space between plants.

Someone needed to design, build and test the wiring, frame, gears and motor just for one mechanized seed planter box unit in a row of 12. Someone needed to figure out the hydraulics to lift the mower attachment.

Timing and spacing of the blades on a mower attachment is essential, and someone somewhere did that math. Heavy duty sheet metal starts at a quarter-inch thick and is triple-coated to not rust from mud, dust, grime and weather.

It's fascinating to ponder how this giant tractor and its attachments were loaded onto a flatbed truck at the factory and shipped to the dealership and then to the farmer. Someone had to include the mechanisms to fold the mower blades so they fit on the truck.

It's fascinating to think of sheet metal fabrication for a fixed-bar arm to hold the set of 20 2-foot-diameter discs along a 25-foot beam that's pulled behind a tractor to turn over these heavy soils. The beam has to be light enough for the tractor to pull but strong enough to withstand the work of the soil and the weathering.

Companies have to manufacture thousands of pieces and parts -- from nuts and bolts to chopping blades, coated wires and rubber tires -- just for people to put it all together to work correctly.

The engines are enormous. Someone had to design and build them with the power needed to operate the choppers and hay balers. The number of intricate pieces and parts in an automobile engine is mind-boggling; having these same pieces and parts grow to twice that size to make these huge engines roar to life is even more mind-boggling.

These machines require skilled technicians to fix them if anything breaks, so somebody has to know how to take the whole thing apart and put it back together. Now that is skill.

Industrial technology is just as important as information technology. Industrial technology designs and builds the machines that make much of our lives possible.

If we are not living in the future, it is because no one has built it yet. We need people to design and build our future and to keep these machines running to help grow the food that keeps us alive.

Holt is a landscape horticulture graduate of Merced College who divides her time between Merced and Mariposa. Send comments or questions to her at columns@modbee.com.

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