Getting Started In Precision Agriculture

As a vendor of precision agricultural services, one of the first questions I get from a new customer is “How do I get started?” This customer may be representing him or herself or a consultant group, grower cooperative, or large company.

Given the rapid changes in the agricultural industry and the steady evolution of technologies supporting precision agriculture, this is not an easy question to answer. I usually answer the customer, whom I am assuming for the sake of discussion is a male and works for a farming operation, with my own set of questions:

  • What role does he play in the farming operation?
  • Who are the other critical personnel in the decision making process?
  • What is the customer’s and personnel’s knowledge and skill level?
  • What is the geographic location of the farming operation and how big is it?
  • What crops are being grown and for what markets?
  • What is the current suite of equipment, devices, software and data services?
  • What short and long-term goals are dictating management decisions in the operation?
  • What are buyers demanding in terms of produce quality and production history?
  • What local regulations affect production practices?
  • Are there security and privacy issues with respect to production information?

These and other questions set the stage for getting someone started in precision agriculture.

Goal Identification

Continuing with the assumption that the customer is representing a farming operation, I found the best strategy for introducing precision agricultural services is to first identify both the short and long-term goals. Is the operation represented by the customer raising a crop for the fresh or process market and is it selling produce outside the U.S? Countries importing fresh produce may restrict varieties and set maximum residue limits (MRLs) for some active ingredients in chemical applications. For overseas markets, produce may need to be certified that it is free of certain pests, which could be a potential invasive threat to the importing country. Domestic and foreign buyers may demand that a crop be grown sustainably or that there is at least evidence that a grower conserved a specific resource, such as water. Government funded programs, such as for soil conservation, may require physical data about a field and require a change in management practices. The customer interested in precision agricultural services will need to sort through the positives and negatives of specific markets, government programs and buyer requirements and then set realistic goals.

To that end, the first precision agricultural service would be a record keeping program. The selected program would not only track whole field practices, expended resources and at-harvest yields, but also as-applied data from subfield, variable rate applications. Without baseline records, documenting, assessing and responding to short and long-term goals becomes at best very difficult.

The second strategic step for introducing precision agricultural services is an assessment of the knowledge and skill sets of the customer and his colleagues in the farming operation. The lack of a long-term, working relationship with the customer makes any assessment difficult. However, one can get a first-order understanding of someone’s knowledge and skill set by reviewing their current production practices and decision-making process. By paying special attention to favorite devices and software programs, one can get a sense for how an individual gathers information along with their comfort level with existing technologies.

For example, if a person does most of his or her decision making in the field using a mobile devise, then the focus would be on precision agricultural tools that provide information anywhere via the Internet. Mobile applications or “apps” that provide weather alerts and forecasts, pest predictions, irrigation amounts and management guidelines would be the first order of business. Other mobile applications could include a scouting program for recording pest observations in a field or a smart sampling program for collecting grid soil samples or verifying subfield zones. Depending on the customer’s decision making needs, analyzed data in various formats, such as high resolution landscape maps, could be delivered to a mobile device as advanced products.

The third strategic step for introducing precision agriculture services addresses security and privacy issues. Security is concerned with protecting the storage and delivery of information, while privacy is concerned with protecting the content of information. Both issues are becoming increasingly important to growers and other professionals in the agricultural community. Precision agricultural programs that facilitate the transfer of data and information between growers and third-parties must employ encryption and have a “share” button. By clicking the share button, the customer can manually control the sharing of his data with a known recipient. The need for security measures is especially true for programs accessible over the Internet or “in-the-cloud.” In addition to security, the same programs must respect the privacy of the customer by separating personal from professional information when communicating with third parties.

The fourth strategic step for introducing precision agriculture services has to do with the awareness of local regulations. Dwindling resources, such as water in some locations, have necessitated the enforcement of preset allocations. Chemical applications made on fields that border residential neighborhoods may be regulated for unfavorable weather conditions or be banned during certain hours of the day.

If the customer’s farming operation is subject to restrictions, he may want to choose a precision agricultural program that accounts for regulatory limits. Specifically, he may want to choose a program that identifies and filters practices affected by regulations. In the minimum, a chosen program should at least provide alerts when practices are at odds with local regulations. Adhering to the old cliché that “regulation is the mother of adoption,” programs that address regulations may in the long run help the customer make more sustainable and community-acceptable decisions.

Don’t Overlook Ease

While checking off the various strategic steps, one important point should not be overlooked when introducing precision agriculture services. That point is “ease-of-use.” Customers interested in precision agriculture services want programs that can be easily integrated into their current decision making habits. If a program is too complicated or takes too much time, it could result in a delayed or bad decision. A program that requires a lot of effort to get tangible results will be perceived as burden and not a benefit. Furthermore, the mistimed introduction of a program that results in a bad experience will make a customer hesitant about trying a new precision agriculture service. This reluctance negatively affects not only the customer but the industry as a whole.

In summary, the successful introduction of precision agriculture services requires matching the data and information needs of a customer with his or her knowledge and skill set while all the time being aware of the short and long term goals of his or her employer. This edition of the PrecisionAg magazine focuses on stories of individuals who use precision agriculture in their operations. Their stories can serve as examples of how to successfully introduce precision agricultural tools into existing farming enterprises.

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