Where mules once trod, GPS rules

Published 2:33 am Saturday, October 22, 2011

When Wiley Donald Ward was a teenager, he helped his father plow the family’s peanut fields at Mobley Creek with a mule.

In the past week, peanuts have been plowed and picked again in that same field – still owned by members of the Ward family. But these days, the tractors are guided by a GPS system that helps farmers operate with maximum efficiency.

Ward’s great-nephew, Russell Wiggins of Wiggins Farms, explained the system.

“It’s part of almost everything we do now,” Wiggins said. “It’s a lot more efficient.”

The system saves fuel, chemical and labor costs, tracking which parts of the field have been fertilized or sprayed, and making sure there is no overlapping.

“GPS has really taken off in the last 10 years, and taken off in our area in the last three to four years. There have been a lot of improvements since it was introduced.”

Local farmers worked together to put a tower system in place, he said, crediting Joey Holt and Tommy Thompson with getting the tower system in place so that area farmers could use GPS. Others who have become part of the network include Glen Walters, Steven Williams, Joe Williams, Wiggins Farms, Halls Brothers, and Jeff Goolsby.

There are seven towers stretching from Florala to Rose Hill, some of which are individually owned. Others are on abandoned towers or water towers.

Early GPS systems for farming were designed for long, wide-open fields with straight rows, Wiggins explained. Now, the systems are more sophisticated and are helping in fields with curves and slopes.

“You have to give credit to the NASA guys,” Wiggins said, with a nod to his great uncle. “They got the satellites into space that made this possible.”

Ironically, Ward left the family farm, joined the military, earned an education and spent his career in aerospace engineering in Huntsville, where he worked on numerous projects that were precursors to today’s technology before retiring to his home county.

“We never gave any thought that what we were doing had other applications,” Ward said Friday afternoon. “We were just trying to get to the moon. That’s all. We had to create all of this to get there.”

Even with his history in aerospace, he is amazed by the technology.

“You really have to be an engineer to appreciate the marvel of this equipment,” he said.

It’s a long way from following a mule. It’s even a long way from Wiggins’ own beginnings in farming.

“I started with a tractor with no guidance,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for human error in that.

“Farming has changed a lot,” he said. “My granddaddy is 82. I’d hate to see as many changes in my lifetime as there have been in theirs.”

As if on cue, his grandfather, Gene Wiggins, arrived in a truck to pick up another load of peanuts.

“He was skeptical at first,” Russell Wiggins said. “But he’s seen that it does work.”

A guidance system for a tractor costs approximately $15,000, plus monthly fees for access. But the savings and efficiencies created make it easy to recoup the costs, he said.

Meanwhile, there’s been a bumper crop of peanuts at Mobley Creek. Wiggins said his family was fortunate to get rain on the fields during a very dry summer.

But they’re also using cover crops to enhance the productivity of the land.

“We’re planting a cover crop now,” he said, indicating a field that was lush with green peanuts a week ago. “We’ll grow it as big as we can get it. In the spring, we’ll kill it down and roll it over for a matt of residue.”

The winter crop and the matt reduce both wind and water erosion.

“It improves the tilth of the soil – the nutrients and water-holding capacity,” Wiggins said. “It also reduces the germination of resistant pig weed.”

Pig weed is resistant to some of the chemistry used, he explained. It’s become a big problem east of here and is starting to show up in the county.

The matt makes it harder for pig weed to germinate because it doesn’t get enough sun, he said.