ALTAMONT – Growing up on a farm in the Lake Sara area and working at the Effingham Equity in Altamont for the past 24 years, George Soltwedel knows the farming business is about working with Mother Nature.
As branch manager at Effingham Equity, he's been responsible for such things as overseeing seed sales, fertilizer sales and applications, plus hiring and firing of employees, training and answering calls in the middle of the night when issues arise.
"It's strictly a weather-related market in what we do and it's also weather-related in regard to employment, too,” said Soltwedel, 68. “Mother Nature tells us what we can do.”
But, in his business, it's also all about service. “Service is the name of the game,” he said.
Branch manager since 2003, he is responsible for making sure the facility is OK and meets all requirements set by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. He will retire on July 31. He's seen a lot of changes in the agricultural industry over the years, from concentrated fertilizer to genetically modified seeds.
The first thing on his agenda after retirement is attending the Effingham County Fair. He and his wife, Val, plan to travel to some southern states, too. He has two daughters and two granddaughters.
Throughout his years in the agriculture industry, Soltwedel said he's seen many changes. There's been an evolution in the techniques over the years, he said.
Some of his earliest professional experiences in agriculture actually happened outside of the U.S., and involved the dairy industry.
He had already earned his bachelor's degree in animal science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and was studying for his master's degree there in ag business when an opportunity to spend several months in Brazil came knocking.
"It was in '71-'72, the United Nations had a program and I was fortunate enough to be one of the grad students selected to go to Brazil,” said Soltwedel. “At that time, there was a university there that was building a campus 10 miles outside of town that was going to focus on agriculture.”
So, from November 1971 to September 1972, he lived and worked in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul. There he was paid $290 a month to help with dairy research at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.
“They needed to know how much they needed to pay farmers for milk,” Soltwedel said. “I did a study on how much it cost to produce milk in that county. I followed up with my thesis on the topic.”
Soltwedel said the students were warned about the cultural shock they'd experience. But, he said that wasn't the case, and he'd love to go back to that area again.
"I loved it," he said.
"When I got there, I saw Pepsi and Coke and Standard Oil,” said Soltwedel. “Nestle was very big there, too. It really wasn't a cultural shock, but it was more just the distance from home.”
But, there were some obvious differences he saw in Brazil that wasn't as common in that day in Illinois.
"The contrast was that milk was being delivered by horse and buggy," he said. "It wasn't pasteurized and it wasn't cooled."
Brazil brought him one of the hottest Christmas Days he's ever experienced. He said the most influential people in the city of 160,000 was the president of the university and the Monsignor of the Catholic Church – in that order. Down the list was the mayor of Santa Maria.
"Last I knew, they were still hosting dairy as an ag program at the university," Soltwedel said.
Cattle, both beef and dairy, was big industry there.
Soltwedel attended Funkhouser Grade School and Effingham High School. He also has worked in Ohio at a co-op and as an independent crop and soil service consultant in Ohio and Illinois.
Before retiring, Soltwedel reflected on some of the many changes he's seen in the industry during the past 50 years in the ag industry.
"In the '60s, the fertilizer business primarily was less concentrated than it is today," Soltwedel said.
"Back then it was bagged, not bulk. Some impurities were removed, but today, we also put some of these plant nutrients back into the soil."
Changes today include that micro-nutrients are included in the primary fertilizers.
"At the same time, farmers have moved from very little soil sampling to grid sampling to give us more information," said Soltwedel. "This allows us to put fertilizer where it is needed, but not where it isn't needed."
Seeds have also changed since the 1960s.
"We did have some hybrid seed corn back then, but not hybrid beans," said Soltwedel. "Back then the beans were not genetically modified organisms."
But, today, there are genetically modified seeds for corn, beans, cotton and other crops, he said. Even row planting has changed, from keeping the rows at least 40 inches apart to 7 1/2 inches apart to what is now twin rows. Twin rows are two rows side by side, no more than 7 1/2 inches apart, he described.
"Back then seeds came in bags, as there were no seed treatments, no fungicides, and no growth enhancements. Today, we have all of these options," he said. "Today, the idea is to get more product, speaking mostly about beans here," Soltwedel said. "Also, if the corn and beans can grow and make a canopy over the soil, it helps with weed control, so there's less cost on weed control products."
He added, “We've got some awfully smart weeds.”
Soltwedel said commercial pest control sprays were limited in the 1960s.
"We took care of that by using hoes and weed hooks and walking," Soltwedel said. "Maybe, at times we would be using a cultivator."
But, as time evolved, we came up with insecticides and selective herbicides that were effective, but would not kill the crop, he said.
"We’ve got products that bleach out the weeds and causes them to die, for the inability to make its own food," said Soltwedel. "But this is something that isn’t used much today."
Genetic Engineering in Seeds
Paired in techniques with crop protection chemicals, genetic engineering in seeds has given the agriculture industry several tools to use in crop production, Soltwedel said.
"Today, unfortunately, resistance has built up in the weeds and pests and it has challenged us in finding ways to keep up on controlling these," he said.
"Weeds, worms and bugs have been immune to our methods. Chemicals only last for so many years, and repeated use limits their viability," Soltwedel said. "It seems you eliminate one and another one shows up."
But, through research and testing, progress has been made over the years.
"We are doing better in controlling corn pests, but still having issues in the soybean area."
Advancements in farming machinery have changed the way farmers get their seeds planted and their crops out of the fields.
"In the early days, there just wasn’t a lot of sophistication in equipment," Soltwedel said. "Today, it is about high-tech, computer-controlled features on the farm equipment."
New and convenient features on tractors, such as auto-steering, robotics, automated boom, and remote sensing, have changed how we do things on the farm.
"For example, they are using remote-sensing technology on lettuce crops in California," he said. "I don’t think it will be developed for our uses here."
He said although we have a natural resistance to change, it remains constant.
"In the past 50 years, we’ve seen constant changes, which are necessary to help us feed our growing population with healthy, safe and affordable food," said Soltwedel.
Dawn Schabbing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151 ext. 138.