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Farms Finding Rich Soil in Technology

Jan 16, 2003
By

Drew Robb






In the days of the Founding Fathers, just finding enough food was the main concern of most people. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both were farmers, as were most of their contemporaries.

Food, in fact, became such a problem in 1798, that Thomas Malthus wrote his famous Essay on the Principles of Population. He predicted that population growth would soon outstrip man's ability to grow food. How wrong he was.

Just as technology has brought us a wealth of manufactured goods, so has it changed the raising of crops. Although only 2% of the nation's workforce is now found on farms, advancing technology enables us to remain an agricultural powerhouse, not only feeding our own population, but exporting $53 billion worth of food products.


A Computer in Every Barn

Computers touch every aspect of farm life. Even way back in 1995, a survey by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that 47% of the 347,000 farms in this country worth $100,000 or more were already using computers in their operations. Nowadays, there are few farms remaining where the computer is not an integral aspect of everyday operations.

Farmers use computers for normal business operations such as bookkeeping, sales and marketing, but there are also programs on the market that analyze soil, terrain, pesticide, crop and weather conditions, allowing farmers to maximize their yields.

Computers are also heavily used to improve crop yields and prepare against disaster.

"Throughout the world there is an important and, in some areas, a critical need for reliable and fast sources of agricultural information," says National Agricultural Library Director Pamela Andre. "It can be a life-and-death need in areas facing agricultural upheaval such as drought, flooding or other natural disasters."

The first step in addressing this has been to bring Internet access out to rural communities. So, just as it did in providing farms with power through rural electrification projects, the federal government is ensuring that Internet access extends to farms.

In 2001 alone, the USDA issued $325 million in loans and grants for projects to bring telecommunications services to rural schools and medical facilities through the Rural Development Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Program. Under the program, students in isolated areas are able to take virtual field trips, or take college prep or foreign language classes that are not available locally. The telemedicine provisions allow patients at remote locations to be examined by doctors through a video hookup.

State government, too, is getting more involved in hooking farms up with the latest technology. The North Carolina General Assembly, for example, established the Rural Internet Access Authority under the state's Rural Economic Development Director in 2000. At that time, the state ranked 46th in the percentage of citizens with Internet access, according to the U.S. Dept of Commerce. By July 2001, local dialup service was available for all citizens and the Authority is now working on bringing affordable high-speed access to all residential customers by 2003.

Once the access is there, the next step is to make information broadly available. Both state and federal departments of Agriculture have created portals providing access to information and services. Go to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship's site (www.agriculture.state.ia.us), for instance, and you find current crop and weather reports, daily and monthly commodity market price reports, loan applications and technical papers on soil conservation.

To make data more readily available, the USDA has put its 3.5 million record AGRICOLA (AGRICultural OnLine Access) database on the Internet (http://www.nalusda.gov/ag98). The Agriculture Network Information Center (www.agnic.org) provides access to more than 800 agricultural databases as well as a list of specialists to contact with questions in nearly all areas of agriculture.

Commercial sites also offer a wealth of information. Visit the Web site of tractor manufacturer Deere & Company (www.deere.com) and you discover all the features you would expect to find on any high-tech site. Visitors can join in a live chat session on the 7000 Series self-propelled harvester, sign up for e-mail alerts on equipment they own or run an ROI spreadsheet to calculate the payback time on a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) guidance system for a tractor.

The Earth Satellite Corporation (Earthsat) provides satellite and ground-based crop production and forecasting services. Its graphical maps show yield potential, growth stage, topsoil moisture and total soil moisture. Earthsat provides its weather and agricultural information to more than 200,000 customers daily. Its crop production forecasts, released weeks before government ones, are 97% accurate, which enables farmers and other businesses along the food supply chain to properly predict the resources needed to get their products to the consumers.

Growth Industry

Using information on-site to grow better crops is where the real payoff comes when you combine technology and agriculture. This is where software such as Irrigator Pro, developed at the USDA's National Peanut Research Lab, comes into play. Irrigator Pro provides the peanut farmer with recommendations on irrigation and pest control practices, based on local weather and soil conditions. It results in a 10% to 20% reduction in use of water and pesticides, while increasing production.

Another USDA project, conducted at the University of Colorado, developed computer modeling techniques to determine the amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O) emitted by a field in different climates using various types of plowing and crop management techniques. This software will help to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas generated by farms.

Overall, though, GPS is probably making the biggest impact on the farm world. GPS receivers hooked into the steering hydraulics of tractors ensure straight, perfectly spaced rows of plants, and are a key enabling technology of precision farming.

Precision farming, in fact, consists of applying agricultural principles on a small level. Within a given field, the soil conditions are not the same from one spot to another. Taking data from satellite images and ground sensors, coupled with a GPS receiver, processor and control mechanisms, farm equipment can variably apply the appropriate amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and water to small sections within a field, rather than treating the entire field the same way. This results in lower costs for water and chemicals, less erosion, less pollution due to runoff, as well as higher crop yield. Since GPS also provides elevation data, it is being used to control equipment used in leveling fields to result in proper drainage.

Sunkist Growers applies GPS technology in yet another innovative fashion. A billion-dollar marketing cooperative based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Sunkist serves 6,500 primarily small-family farmers in California and Arizona. Accurately predicting the size of a crop, for example, is needed to market and sell fruit at competitive prices. This data affects decision making on advertising, transportation and finances.

To improve accuracy, Sunkist implemented PC-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software from ESRI of Redlands, Calif. The co-op places bar tags on some of the oranges in member orchards, identifying the fruit, its position on the tree and the tree's position in the orchard, using GPS data. The tagged oranges are measured to determine growth and size distribution within the crop. Later an estimator returns to the orchard to input the information with a touch-screen computer running GIS software, thereby generating an accurate estimate of the size and quality of the crop.

"This will eliminate a lot of the inaccuracies we've had in previous counts," says Chris Stambach, supervisor of Sunkist's Crop Estimating Department. "Being off by 1 million cartons impacts budget revenue by as much as $610,000."


 

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