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Precision Agriculture

Farmers' views on precision agriculture can basically be fit into three lines of thought.

Some view precision farming as the solution to everything and are completely sold on it.

Others are initially reluctant to adopt the newer technologies because of the cost involved, but they take the step anyway because they know it's worth it.

And then there are those who simply refuse to use the latest technologies because they either don't believe they're worth the cost or they don't understand them.

John Deere's SeeStar XP system gives producers the ability to monitor and adjust a wide variety of planting operation on the go for optimal seed placement and increased productivity.

Bruce Crapo, a grower of 6,000 acres of commercial potatoes and 2,000 acres of seed potatoes in Idaho, is a good example of how the average potato farmer looks at precision agriculture - he uses technology to reduce costs, increase output and improve profits.

Crapo isn't thrilled at the cost of high-tech equipment such as GPS-guided tractors, but he knows it's saving him money and there's no way he can turn back now.

"There is a substantial initial cost involved," Crapo said. "But I also know it is saving me money. What do you do? Go back to what you were doing before? That's not an option."

Crapo, who uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology on all his planters and harvesters, said the latest precision ag technology has taken farming to a different level.

"It's light years ahead of what it was when we were doing it by hand," he said. "We're not going to go back to not using it, but we are wincing a little at the cost."

Precision agriculture can loosely be defined as using new technologies such as GPS, sensors, variable rate application equipment and aerial or satellite images to make farming easier and more profitable.

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Simply put, precision agriculture can help farmers improve their margins by decreasing their operating costs.

Idaho farmer Robert Blair, owner of PineCreek Precision, says the biggest benefit of precision farming is that it gives producers the ability to manage their farm on a production zone basis rather than a whole field basis. This shift, he said, allows farmers to save time and money and helps them offset the rising cost of chemicals, nutrients, fuel and fertilizer.

Blair uses a wide array of precision agriculture techniques on his 1,500-acre farm and said the technology is saving him tens of thousands of dollars every year.

GPS technology can be used to control farm equipment and cut down on overlap, saving on the cost of fertilizer, seeds and chemicals, not to mention fuel.

Precision ag proponents say equipment that applies chemicals and nutrients at variable rates depending on soil quality can significantly reduce input costs. This works by applying more inputs where they're needed and not necessarily uniformly over an entire field because soil conditions in a single field can vary considerably.

And aerial or satellite images can be used to monitor how it's all working and adjust as needed.

Blair estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of farmers are completely sold on precision agriculture. He thinks that number should be 100 percent.

"For one, the technology's not going away and it's only getting better," Blair said.

As an example of how fast farm technology will evolve, Blair points out that cell phones today can access the Internet the way only computers could just a few years ago.

He says in spud country, cell phones are now being used to control pivots, and he said that moisture sensors placed in the field allow farmers to measure the effectiveness of their irrigation and adjust accordingly.

"You're looking at this new technology changing how farming is done," he said. "It's certainly an exciting time we're in right now."

Blair, who recently received an Eisenhower Agriculture Fellowship to study precision agriculture in Brazil and Argentina, said the question could legitimately be asked, "are those who are not adopting this technology still going to be farming in the future?"

Washington potato farmer Dave Long is typical of the farmer who firmly believes in precision agriculture and is sold on the benefits of new technology.

"Everybody should be using it," said Long, CEO of United Potato Growers of Washington-Oregon. "It makes everything so much simpler and it's saving us money."

Long says the majority of potato farmers in the Columbia basin are using some type of precision agriculture method. He's particularly excited about new computer controls on spray rigs that practically eliminate human error. That's particularly beneficial when you're applying pesticides, he said, because that's no time for human error to be a factor.

Other technologies that are making potato farming easier include low-pressure drip nozzles on pivots that are much more efficient and apply the exact amount of water exactly when and where it's needed.

"You're putting the exact amount of water on that crop that it needs at that time; that's amazing," Long said.

He said there are always new technologies coming out for potato storage that allow farmers to minimize the amount of shrinkage and damage done during storage.

"It's things like that that save us money and help us to raise a better crop," he said.

Todd Cornelison, industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission, said an overlooked benefit of precision agriculture is that it can play a big role in environmental sustainability, which is only going to be more important in the future because of increasing pressure from the public.

He said new technologies allow farmers to use as little water and chemicals as possible to achieve maximum output, which helps the environment. And while the cost of some of the newer technologies is "still horrendous," he said, the money it enables farmers to save makes it unavoidable.

"Competition and public pressure is going to force every farmer in that direction eventually," he said.

Long said it's only a rumor that older farmers are the most reluctant to adopt precision farming techniques.

"I don't know of one older farmer that doesn't want to change or progress," he said. "You have to; if you don't, you're not going to stay in business."

—Sean Ellis, contributing writer

 

Originally posted Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011

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