What Precision Agriculture Is — and Isn’t

I previously posed the question: Why not just call precision agriculture “precision agriculture”?


Mercifully the majority of you agree with me, if the poll that accompanied the post is any indication. At last count about 80% of poll participants said of the term precision agriculture, “I think it’s perfectly fine – it captures the essence of what ag is trying to do with technology.”

In his comment on the post, Benjamin Smith spoke for many, I believe, in saying: “When I think of precision agriculture, I think of grid sampling soils, of variable seeding and fertilizing and the like. I don’t think of soil sensors, vehicle tracking, analytics, etc. I’m good calling the general technological advancements ag tech, but it would be wise to start breaking them into disciplines.”

I agree on the latter – it’s time we broke the whole unwieldy area of technology into a handful of discreet areas so that all of us can better describe, understand, and explain them.


But I don’t necessarily agree with calling the whole lot “ag tech.” Here’s why.

Ag tech, I think, is a Johnny-come-lately term – a big slushy pot into which nearly anything that didn’t exist in agriculture 20 or 30 years ago is often thrown, often by people outside of or else new to agriculture. The danger here is that if nearly everything of relatively recent development is ag tech – genetic engineering, biologicals, automation, robotics, analytics, variable-rate application, blockchain, etc. – then nothing is.

So, as I asked in my previous post: Which technologies should be include under the heading of precision agriculture?

To help answer that question, I was gratified that, just before writing this, the International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA), after well over a year of deliberation, issued a definitive definition of its namesake term:

“Precision Agriculture is a management strategy that gathers, processes, and analyzes temporal, spatial, and individual data and combines it with other information to support management decisions according to estimated variability for improved resource use efficiency, productivity, quality, profitability, and sustainability of agricultural production.”

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but there are three key words here: Gathers. Processes. Analyzes. This pretty closely aligns with our thinking here at PrecisionAg.

Look at the menu at the top of this website. Under “In Field Technologies” we list all the major technologies that crop production agriculture currently uses to gather and process data. (Also to apply it in the field – one quibble I have with ISPA’s final definition is that I think it should have included the concept of application.) These technologies, to me, are the very core of precision agriculture.

As for the “analyze” piece . . . we have “Digital Farming” – precision agriculture’s nerdy, office-bound brother. We place it an a separate box just adjacent to In Field Technologies because analysis and data management so frequently happen outside of the growing season — often away from the field (on agronomists’ computers, for instance).

We also include “Farm to Fork” because we think technologies just beyond harvest also are critical to growing operations – in packinghouses, for instance, where automation and robotics are an extension of growers’ tender loving care of their crops; and through blockchain, which increasingly is used to trace and verify how growers produce crops in the field (e.g., organically or non-organically).

But as for biologicals, biotech, and genetics . . . to me the core of these areas lie alongside crop protection, fertility, and seed as part of the general crop input channel just upstream of precision agriculture.

And as for so-called “new” or “novel” crops like plant-based protein intended to replace meat . . . this is technology but it’s not precision agriculture technology – unless it’s produced with the data-informed process of “gather, process, analyze” (and “apply”) that ISPA prescribes.

So there you have it: working definitions of “precision agriculture” as well as “digital farming” and “farm to fork,” at least as we currently abide by them in producing and categorizing content for this website and in programming our events including the PrecisionAg VISION Conference.

But things can always change, and more than likely they will — just consider how much the concept of precision agriculture has evolved in only 25 or 30 years.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment in the space below.

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Nice summation, Jim. I think we could all use an infographic to illustrate this. Bet it would go viral, at least among aggies!