Has The Term “Precision Ag” Run Its Course?

It’s something that has come up a number of times during my 15-year career as purveyor of ag technology coverage. Al McQuinn, the CEO of Ag-Chem Equipment who financed the finishing touches on what would become Soilection technology in the 1990s, would share his opinion on it with anyone who would listen.

While I won’t attempt to fashion a direct quote, it went something like this: “I don’t like the term ‘precision agriculture.’ What we’re really doing is ‘site-specific’ agriculture, applying technology and best practices to the variations of individual fields.”

It was not a terminology battle he was going to win … in my humble opinion, because “precision” is a more marketable word. And it’s not like the word doesn’t apply at all. When we use technology on the farm, it is indeed for the purpose of being more precise about what we apply and how we apply it.

And the term has served us well as a way to identify improved practices and technology adoption over the past two decades. But there seems to be a growing call for an evolution to a different term for the “movement.” I think there are a few reasons for that.

First, nearly every grower in the US can claim to be using some measure of technology, be it auto steering, boom section control, variable-rate application, wireless data transfer … are all these farmers now “precision farmers?” In my mind the answer is ‘no,’ they need to be doing more than  that.

Second, with so many pieces of precision hardware out there collecting so much data, the emphasis is shifting from the big screens and shiny rigs to, “what do I do with all this information?” This is great, because it’s what manufacturers and consultants have been wanting for years – a grower who’s ready to take the next step.

Which gets us back to the term ‘precision.’ Growers, retailers and consultants seem to perceive it as meaning everything and nothing at the same time.

We decided to do a little informal survey in this eNewsletter last week, and the responses were interesting. Nearly 40% of respondents consider the term ‘precision’ to be misleading, asserting that we need another name. Just over 30% feel that the term is not a true reflection of the “movement” but at this point, it’s the best we have. The other 30% feel that ‘precision’ is a fair and accurate description.

Personally, even though I have “skin in the game” as the lead content guy at PrecisionAg.com,  I lean towards it not truly capturing what’s going on in ag technology today. In part, I think it’s because I’ve been in it so long, and I know that things are evolving toward data, and that technology is increasingly being integrated (as to become more invisible) over time, eventually becoming standard practice on the farm. But I still see value in retaining a specific identity for best practices in ag technology, at least for now.

I’ve been gravitating toward the term “smart agriculture” myself, but I’m interested in what you have to say. Please share some comments with me and our other readers in the comment area below.

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11 comments on “Has The Term “Precision Ag” Run Its Course?

  1. I agree with you Paul, I think a lot of us that have been around over the last 15+ years have an affinity for the term Precision Farming, however these days the various types of technology falling in that bucket tend to suggest it maybe time to update our terminology. I’m not sure what the new phrase should be but maybe we should ask someone from generation Z. It’s kind of like our baby is all grown up now…

  2. Paul,

    I like Al McQuinn’s ‘site-specific’ as well as ‘precision’ and , your term, ‘smart.’ I teach “Agriculture and the Environment” where we look at all the ways agriculture, people and the environment interact. Two terms I see there used to describe the advanced agriculture we see today are ‘modern’ and ‘scientific.’

  3. I agree Paul – there’s a big difference between guidance and telematics and it’s increasingly inappropriate to throw them into the same catch-all “precision” bucket. It happens in other industries too though – IBM and Hewlett-Packard are still coded as a “tech” stocks alongside Facebook and Google – go figure. I like your “Smart Ag” tag – hope it picks up steam!

  4. Precision ag is the right term, but over-used since the 90’s. Real “precision ag” is just beginning.

    The driver is “big data”, which is accumulated by sensors, and sensors are getting cheap. For example, watch how cheap RTK GPS/GNSS will get in the next 3 years. Tremendous amounts of high-precision data will be at our fingertips. Software is needed to process that data and provide information to make high-quality decisions. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

    Maybe precision ag will be renamed like virtual apps were renamed cloud apps, but don’t let the name fool you. It doesn’t matter what you call it, precision ag is entering a new era.

  5. I had similar discussions with Al McQuinn, and generally agreed with him that “site specific” was a better term for what we were doing, especially related to fertilizer management. The technologies have now expanded to where many others are part of the bundle. It includes GPS, GIS, genetics, remote sensing, data management, sensors, guidance, communications, etc, etc. Most fit “site-specific; most fit precision (maybe still not as well); most are evolving and becoming integrated into just plain “agriculture”. We have been using the term “InfoAg” to cover the technology and the information management—but it probably isn’t a very accurate descriptor. “Precision” has been so widely adopted that it serves as a good link to all of these components. Maybe we will find and adopt a better term some day, but for now I can accept “precision” as a term that most people relate to. My main concern is that we keep on doing it, regardless of what we call it. We are just beginning to realize the potential impact on agriculture and where we are headed in the future.

  6. Technology Innovations in Agriculture (Tech-No AG)…
    Site-specific, soil-specific, crop specific management practices continue to change and evolve as new innovations….usually technology oriented….are incorporated into our crop production practices tool box.

  7. Other things that are Smart these days, as in Smart Cities, are more passive entities that benefit from sensors and systems than agriculture. Smart has some connotations that neglect the long history of modernizations that have improved efficiency, and it may offend individual farmers that have been doing smart things for some time. Scientific Agriculture acknowledges all the important research that has improved the practice, but again it’s a focus away from the individual farmer, placing emphasis on research and technology. Site-specific is a more neutral and inclusive term between researchers and technologists and the individual farmers, and it doesn’t lose sight of the land where the methods and the technology are applied.

  8. Although I did not participate in your survey I have for years been uncomfortable with the Precision Agriculture term.

    I had put down several combinations of words but usually came up with a lengthy pharse rather than a concise – descriptive term. Something I might be able to live with is Advanced Science Agriculture.

    Sorry, I don’t go for “Smart Agriculture”

    Thanks for your continued coverage.

    Roland Schirman
    Columbia Co Extension – Retired

  9. Paul
    Hi. I believe Precision Agriculture is the right term and I (and generally the rest of the world) generally asdociate any farming practice that uses GPS as Precision Ag. There are some exceptions.
    The academic boffins (who I was one of when I did my PhD Almost 20yrs ago) started on the ‘site specific’ application of inputs angle but I feel that is just a subcomponent of Precision Ag. The largest application of GPS has actually been in the auto steer market. It allows more precise farming operations that has lead to a wide range of benefits. It is not site specific farming but it is definitely a part of precision farming. At OptiSurface.com we are using GPS to improve landforming/grading. It’s not site specific application of inputs but definitely part of Precision Ag. I feel ‘smart ag’ is too vague.

  10. Paul,
    Having been involved in Precision Ag since it’s inception way back in the very early 1990s I tend to agree with Dr. Reetz who has seen it all. Back in the days when we protected our laptops with egg crate foam inside a plastic milk crate mounted on the front of a 4 wheeler with bungy cords. Not to mention how difficult it was to view the computer screens until you were jolted back into reality by a sink hole or a rut in the field. Back when we were using Dos operating systems on our laptops not Windows or whatever else is out there today. We weren’t to concerned about what we called it. I agree with Harold call it what you want just keep doing it. We have seen tremendous advances in precision ag in the last 25 years perhaps we should think of it as precise agriculture.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, lots to think about … and about as much consensus as there is around the office. Bottom line is, I’m glad there’s a lot of interest around the topic. We are in moving forward and there’s a bright future ahead.

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