Entrusted with the stewardship of the food supply, farmers have been the cornerstone of civilization since ancient times. The magnitude of this responsibility continues to grow as today's farmers are tasked with increasing food production by 70 percent to support a global population that is expected to swell to 9.6 billion by 2050. This revelation comes at a time when yields for cereal crops - like wheat, rice and corn - have been on a steady decline. As farmers contend with how to meet demand, many are hoping that the application of precision agriculture can reverse this downward trend and ensure food security.

In the past, decisions made on the farm were largely speculative. With little insight into the state of the land and its variances, farmers were restricted to treating vast fields as a uniformed plot. Precision agriculture allows them to take a dynamic approach to crop management. Using GPS, sensors and analytics, they can continuously monitor conditions, crops and equipment to optimize inputs like seeds, water, pesticides and fertilizer, so they are being applied on an as needed basis.

"It might look the same to your eye, but once you look at yield data, soil scans, satellite images and drone images, you start to see these differences out there," said Doug Weist, a fourth generation farmer, president of Weist Farms and owner of the consulting firm, Farm Tech. "The idea is to identify the differences and treat that area of the field accordingly, because not every part of the field needs the same level of nutrients."

Out in the fields of his Montana farm, Weist is collecting data on everything that is happening from what was sprayed on the crops to how efficient was the machine performing the task. He can then review the inputs and outputs to make incremental changes to improve performance. The result is a repeatable model that produces a more consistent and higher quality product. "We aren't throwing it all out there in January hoping for averages. We are waiting for Mother Nature to show her hand, and then we can respond to it."

While the promise of such technologies is substantial, the adoption for farmers is not without barriers. For one, the upfront capital costs can be prohibitive, particularly for small farms. While sensors can be acquired for a relatively low cost between $150-200, a connected harvester, a machine used to gather crops, with sensing technology can cost $300,000-400,000. "My concern is that the adoption is high among large agriculture companies, very little among small-sized farms," said Saverio Romeo, principal analyst, Beecham Research.

Farming is also a traditionally low tech industry, and these advanced systems require a certain level of technical expertise. While young farmers like Weist, 35, are leaping at the opportunity to bring new technology to the farm, there is some reluctance among older farmers. As he explained, "These guys have been farming for two to three generations without this stuff, and they have paid for the farm, and it has grown. Until it is black and white that it is better, they aren't going to do it."

But the challenges extend beyond individual farms, and as the prevalence of the technology grows, the broader industry will have to develop standards to rectify issues with interoperability and data ownership. In the current state, farmers are often confronted with a situation where hardware and software from different manufacturers do not always play nice together. Then there is the even bigger question of who does the data belong to once it has been collected. A survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 77.5 percent of farmers were concerned the government might access their data without permission, and 76 percent worried the information could be used for commodity market speculation without approval.

Although the industry still has many obstacles to overcome, the farmers who are implementing the technology are already reaping the rewards. When Weist crunched the numbers to look at the use of inputs to meet yield goals with traditional agronomy as compared to actuals using precision agriculture, the average use of fertilizer was 25-30 percent less, and yields were 10-15 percent higher.

Precision agriculture stands to revolutionize farming as we know it. And Weist predicts that in the future it will also redefine how people see one of the oldest occupations. "Farmers are not dragging a plow and a horse out there, they are high tech."

Published on: Jul 6, 2015
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