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Technology aids farming and irrigation practices

It’s said that the information age started with the military in the 1950s, and the technology we have in the 21st century is a direct result of it. Farmers haven’t benefited near as much as other industries, but that may change for the next generation of produce growers.

It comes down to one word: visualization, said Fran Pierce, director of the Center for Precision Agriculture Systems at Washington State University.

“Why do we still have field days in agriculture? Because visualization is so important.”

But with large tracts of land on a typical farm, that gets harder and harder to do as the farm gets bigger. Pierce said some growers in eastern Washington use helicopters to survey their crops, but with advancements in technology there will soon be new, interactive ways to visualize the farm.

Three trends are shaping the future of farming: faster video graphics cards, smaller computer chips and open-source software codes. Every device will be able to communicate with other devices and store all that information. Storage will not be in gigabytes, but in teraflops – a term used now to measure supercomputers.

“You get a lot of information at one point in time, and no idea how you got there,” Pierce said. “You can generate so much data that there’s no way you can look at it all.”

The current generation of video game systems is able to render three-dimensional environments in real time, and much faster alternatives are available. Computer video graphics cards available to consumers can be “20, 30 or 100 times faster than using the CPU,” Pierce said.

Computer chips also continue to shrink in size and increase in power. Every cell phone now carries a small GPS chip, as do many cars, trucks and equipment – even to the point where a car will send an e-mail when it needs an oil change.

Open source software – free software programming languages like Linux and Java – are making software development faster and cheaper. New programs can be written for specific applications, like agriculture, that don’t require a whole new system. It’s like having a field ready to plant – just plant the seeds for the crop you want to grow.

Integrating Irrigation

Today’s future farmers will be ready for this technology, but the demand for advanced integrated systems will come from processors and retailers. Recordkeeping will be even more important for growers as retail and foodservice customers demand traceback and greater shipping efficiency.

There will have to be a heavy investment into products for the agriculture industry. If large software companies think it will be a profitable sector, the industry will see new products coming down the pipeline quickly. Otherwise, the research and product development will be done piecemeal at universities and private firms.

Irrigation is one of the first farming implements to adopt integrated systems. The Center for Precision Agriculture at Washington State University has set up a wireless system on center pivot irrigation that is radio controlled. It provides real-time information at the users’ fingertips that can monitor and change how much water is being applied and where. It’s precision agriculture, but different from technology like yield maps because it is real time and not compiled from past data.

Tractors and fertilizer applicators also can be outfitted with sensors, and when used with precision water application, a grower can adjust and adapt to changing environmental factors in a specific area of the crop.

“Bare soil imagery is a great predictive tool, but using sensors that measure the crop as it develops have the potential to allow the grower to even further fine-tune applications of everything from water to fertilizer to pesticides, however most are in the early stages of experimentation,” said Bryan Hopkins, Extension potato specialist for the University of Idaho. “In the case of nitrogen management, the technology development is relatively further along and we can nearly fertilize each plant individually based on its actual need.”

That’s where the hope for irrigation research lies. Integrating more systems – such as near-infrared spectroscopy or aerial imagery – can provide a snapshot of a field and make for more accurate irrigation. It would also help reduce the demand for water, which is important where water rights are becoming an issue or in drought-susceptible areas.

Tech products could also be used to reduce the cost of doing business. Radio frequency identification chips are already being marketed for tracking potatoes in storage and for monitoring shipments between the fields and storage facilities. The RFID tags replace paper bills of lading that are often lost and require more paperwork. An electronic system can transmit the information to a base unit that stores it in an easily accessible database, essentially replacing an existing accounting function.

Pierce sees a day where a farmer will come home, kick his kid off the video game system and “walk” around a three-dimensional, real-time rendering of his farm. While it wouldn’t replace actually being in the fields, it would organize the billions of data points that will be generated from equipment and weather and soil monitoring stations.

“These are the types of technology that are coming,” Pierce said. “There are things you can do on a computer that you can’t do with the human head.”

It probably won’t be the current generation of farmers that adopt this type of technology. The next generation of farmers will expect technology in almost everything.

“Why can our kids visualize everything – and we can’t visualize anything?” Pierce said.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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