TCS Daily

Strapping the Information Age to the Back of a Tractor

By J. Bishop Grewell - July 26, 2001 12:00 AM

Precision Farming Enterprises of Davis, Calif., approached farmer Ardean Anderson last year to attach a yield monitor and global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver to his bailer. The company then used the equipment to map his field. The resulting map displayed a low-yield area where the Royal City, Wash., farmer's alfalfa field has a fertility problem. With more accurate information, Anderson can apply fertilizer to low-yield areas without being forced to apply it everywhere. The process shows the way to more efficient and cost-effective fertilizer application. Anderson's story is a poster portrait for 21st century agriculture, where farmers will increasingly rely on precision farming to improve their bottom line and improve environmental health.
Precision farming is a product of the information age. By pinpointing where fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural inputs are needed most, precision farming cuts back on the costs to farmers and reduces the environmental impact of farming. It works in the following way.

Farmers gather data about soil quality, product yields, areas of weed growth, and other factors affecting their operation. With the help of GPS systems, differing characteristics of different fields - or even different spots within the same field - are mapped with unprecedented accuracy. Using satellites circling the globe, GPS systems allow a farmer to triangulate the precise coordinates of a location. The high end of John Deere's StarFire system uses up to 10 satellites at once to take map readings accurate to within 10 inches of a locale. Computer software then creates maps of high- and low-yield areas. Plots of weed growth, regions low in nutrients, and other important factors to crop productivity are demarcated. Other software incorporates the data for relaying messages to sprayers on farm equipment, and calibrates them to spray more or less fertilizer or pesticide on varied positions.

Rick Hartley runs a contracting business near Attleborough, Norfolk in the United Kingdom. His company kills bugs and weeds for beet farmers and other agriculturists. Before the crops are up, Hartley easily identifies patches of thistles because they can be seen when he drives by with his sprayer. Upon reaching a patch, he sprays it with herbicide and then turns the sprayer off until arriving at a new one. When interviewed by a U.K. farm weekly last year, Hartley explained, "While it is easy enough to do that the first time through the crop, the second dose of the split treatment goes on when the beets are up and the thistles largely hidden. As a result, you can not be as selective without the risk of misses."

Before precision farming, Hartley's second trip through the beets required him to spray everywhere to make sure he got all the thistles. Today, Hartley marks the locale of thistles his first time through with a GPS system. When he returns for the second spraying, the GPS directs where and when the sprayer should be turned on and shut off. This saves on herbicide and lowers cost. Such patch spraying has the potential to lower herbicide costs by up to 50 percent.

Thomas DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston in Texas. His recently released book, Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, sums up the driving force behind precision farming systems. "Farmers generally do not wish to use inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides needlessly, since they cost money," he writes. "Precision farming...efficiently substitutes technology in the form of knowledge for inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides."

While agriculture benefits from precision farming, so does the environment. According to the 1998 National Water Quality Inventory, an estimated 60 percent of the pollution in our nation's rivers and streams and 45 percent of the pollution in our lakes comes from agricultural sources. Fertilizer is the number one cause of what's known as nutrient loading in our nation's waterways. Irrigation and rainwater carry nitrogen-laden fertilizer off the land and into nearby streams. This leads to increased plant growth, algae blooms, and eventually, fish kills. By promoting more efficient fertilizer use, precision farming reduces nutrient runoff.

Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring is a founding document of the modern environmental movement. In it, she warned that the pesticide DDT was killing numerous bird species. DDT was eventually banned. It is questionable whether a ban was the correct approach, but pesticides do worry some consumers and environmentalists. For instance, certain insecticides may raise cancer risks. High doses of these chemicals seem certain to have an adverse effect on native wildlife. Again, precision farming offers hope. It lowers the impact of pesticides by reducing the volume deployed by farmers. The data collection systems of precision farming also create a historical record that can help monitor the impact of different sprays both on crop yields and environmental health.

Precision farming has brought the information age to the backseat of a tractor. It is lowering the cost of food production and providing a breath of fresh air to the environment. That not only means more green in farmers' wallets, but more green in their fields, too.

J. Bishop Grewell is a research associate with Political Economy Research Center (PERC), the Center for Free Market Environmentalism in Bozeman, Montana.

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