Precision Ag Could Shine In Increased Spotlight On Agriculture

By any measure, 2015 is turning into one of the most challenging years agriculture has ever experienced. All throughout good portions of the Midwest, Mid-South and elsewhere, crop fields are near the saturation point or visibly underwater. Of course, most folks in the marketplace still remember the massive amount of flooding that occurred in the Midwestern Corn Belt back in the early 2000s. Still, according to many market watchers, the deluge of rainfall that has occurred during 2015 somehow seems worse.

“With age and experience comes some benefits relative to assessing the salvageability of damaged corn crops,” said Bob Nielsen, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University, in a recent online story. “However, even us ‘greybeards’ have not seen the likes of what Mother Nature has thrown in our way this season in terms of the sheer number of days of soggy soils and resulting crop damage.”

Many growers apparently share this view. “A decade from now, I will be telling my grandchildren how I survived the summer of 2015,” said Indiana grower Brian Scott at a recent panel discussion hosted by Dow AgroSciences, adding that the number of waterlogged fields in his part of the state were as numerous as he’s ever seen.

For many in the agricultural community, the extreme weather couldn’t have come at a worse time. Virtually all growers across the country were already struggling with falling commodity prices and revenues — which recent USDA figures project are on pace to be down more than 35% from the 2014 totals. By and large, this has already created an environment within agriculture where growers are increasingly reluctant to spend their hard-earned income on anything beyond the basic needs.

“At $7 corn, I have room to wiggle and spend more to increase my yields,” said Jeff WanderWerff, a grower from Michigan at the Dow AgroSciences panel discussion. “But that’s not the case at $3 corn.”

On the surface, this grower view should mean trouble for precision agriculture usage. In fact, during the 17th Precision Agriculture Dealer Survey conducted by Purdue University with sister publication CropLife magazine, 49% of ag retailers believed that farm income pressures on growers during the whole of 2015 could be a significant barrier to the growth of precision agriculture. This marked the highest percentage attained for the question of barriers to precision ag growth in the now-biennial survey since 2009.

But low income alone might not tell the whole story. When discussing the major challenges currently facing growers, Ohio grower John Davis noted that increased scrutiny from consumers was playing into his decision-making processes. “I call it ‘farming in public,’” said Davis. “Now, everything I do is known by everybody thanks to technology. I have to do my best to keep the public informed on what I’m doing.”

Michigan grower WanderWerff agreed. “I spend more and more time explaining what I do,” he said. “But it helps protect me from the regulatory side, so I’m willing to do that.” In this kind of environment, both growers believed that using precision agricultural technologies and methods in their operations could aid in these efforts on several fronts.

Precision ag service and equipment providers have also apparently picked up on this industry vibe. Accord­ing to the Precision Ag survey, 16% of ag retailers are planning to invest more than $100,000 in their precision ag offerings during 2015. In particular, respondents expected most of this investment in the areas of data collection and analysis.

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