Remembering 2007: When Yield Matters

I believe the 2007 growing season will be recognized as a pivotal point for precision agriculture in the U.S. I base this belief on a number of converging socio-economic and technical trends. The socio-economic trends include larger farms, non-traditional farmland investment, demand for produce in expanding markets (such as energy), and continued consolidation among material manufacturers and distributors. The technical trends include equipment guidance, as-applied monitoring, asset tracking, and field-to-back office connectivity.

All this is occurring against the backdrop of increasing energy costs, food security, climate change, and political policies. Rarely has there been a juxtaposition of events that has brought yield to the forefront and has promoted precision agriculture in the minds of industry stakeholders.

Everyone is reminded of the increasing energy costs with each visit to the gas pump. Every facet of agriculture is in one way or another impacted by energy demands. The processing of fertilizers, the transportation of farm materials, aerial applications, and mechanical harvesting in the field are just a few examples. A day does not go by without a new story about food security related to crops imported or grown at home. Consumers nationwide are questioning the safety of the food supply and are beginning to demand more knowledge about a grown commodity. A week does not go by without a story about climate change or how abnormal warming or cooling, or changing precipitation patterns at a given location are going to impact the choice of crops and farming practices.

If energy costs, food security, and climate change are not enough, political policies have added to the weight of uncertainty in the industry and indirectly impacted consumers. Examples include the new Farm Bill (which will likely subsidize growers beyond the usual grain commodities) traceability requirements on imported produce into Europe, and quarantines on crops infected by invasive species. Today’s agricultural picture is dynamic, challenging, and full of opportunities from the perspective of precision agriculture.

A Place For Precision

Precision agriculture is ideally positioned to help growers through these tumultuous times. First, precision agriculture is all about information. It offers all players in the industry tools for capturing, processing, and sharing data and decisions across the production space. An informed grower is a better grower by being aware of improved farming practices, equipment options, and market demands. Improved farming practices in many cases translate into energy savings by appropriately employing costly, time-consuming practices. Second, precision agriculture supports traceability and food security. There exist today desktop and online programs that allow a grower to keep complete records of every action and to pass that information down the food chain and, where appropriate, to regulatory agencies. As reporting formats become standardized, downstream audiences in the chain will have access to documentation on the origin, history, and quality of produce.

The 2007 growing season marked corn as first among “energy” crops. As an energy crop, higher yield is equivalent to more fuel. Today is when yield matters. Sustained higher yields require decision-support tools that track, compare, and guide management practices across different geographies and growing seasons.

Precision agriculture tools are slowly evolving from data collection and analysis schemes, to decision-support programs. These programs, once mature, will provide recommendations to growers as to when they should plant, fertilize, scout for pests, employ pest controls, and harvest. These same programs will record actions for traceability and identify risk-mitigating choices to ensure maximum yield while minimizing the impact on the environment and neighboring living areas.

In recent months, I have sensed a more upbeat mood among individuals currently involved in precision agriculture. I have found more entities interested in getting started with precision agriculture tools. And, more importantly, I have heard of growers interested in more sophisticated programs to help them achieve higher yields and more efficiently manage their operations. I would suggest, keeping a watch on this year’s socio-economic and technical trends (such as covered in this issue), because they could be signaling a new upturn in precision agriculture opportunities.

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