Online Companion: Precision Agriculture

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Innovators of precision farming in the late 1980s and early 1990s faced many obstacles: lack of understanding, lack of support, equipment that was still in the process of development, and inefficiencies of design. This was the infancy of precision farming.

The first technology used by innovators was yield mapping, which combined GPS and yield monitors. This was followed closely by grid sampling, which used GPS to record soil sample points. At least a few innovators even tried building predictive computer yield models to do variable rate application of fertilizer based on manure application and soil nutrient levels.

For the precision farming innovator, Rockwell Vision System provided a complete system.

Companies such as Rockwell International created a complete system called the Vision System, which was composed of GPS with Coast Guard differential correction, a yield monitoring system, and its own GIS. Ag Leader was already building yield monitors and started marketing them with the addition of GPS for yield mapping. Trimble was already a full-fledged GPS company with a choice of receiver units and companion software that would allow export to several GIS. Deere was also entering the precision agriculture movement with a yield mapping system of their own. There was a multitude of other small companies with GPS equipment, agriculture GIS software, or a sensor, very few of which would actually work together. The incompatibility between hardware and software was a major issue. Having the correct cable and getting the differential signal or even a strong enough GPS position were common difficulties. Innovators not only had to learn the software and the hardware but had to be able to troubleshoot power cable or GPS problems.

The two technologies worked together to provide the farmer with a yield map.

A small group of farmers, producers, and consultants explored, tried new things, and figured out many things. These innovators paved the way for the early adopters to try the new technology. Early adopters are not going to risk the use of brand new technology, but they will be the first ones to use it after the innovators have gotten some of the bugs out of it.

Early Adopters

The early adopters went for the simplest and the most visible part of precision farming: yield mapping. The purchase of yield monitors increased during the late 1990s, and the pressure on technical support increased accordingly. Without many education or training possibilities, producers were stuck with equipment and software that had a high learning curve. At least one company struggled with the amount of time that was required of the people purchasing their system.

In addition, more cooperatives or consultants started doing grid sampling for producers. Grid cell and interpolated maps showing variation of nutrients within a field were the talk of the coffee shop. With the early adopters buying into precision farming techniques and tools, precision farming moved beyond its infancy.

Grid sampling was a standard method of collecting nutrient data. (Courtesy of Kirkwood Community College)

Many of the companies that started in precision farming infancy were still around: Deere, Ag Leader, and Trimble; and a few were not, notably Rockwell, who disbanded their agriculture division in the late 1990s to concentrate on the military industry. Some new companies joined in, notably SST Software Group and ESRI. This period was also one of proposed cooperation. The promise of equipment working together and industry standards brought competing companies together.

This period also was characterized by "want to know more." There was no lack for people wanting to know more about precision farming; however, there was a lack of people educated in precision farming techniques and tools to help them. A large number of classes, workshops, and speakers addressed precision farming at the awareness phase.

It was at this point that the precision farming industry reached a plateau. Early adopters, who do not want the risk that innovators are willing to accept, found that all the bugs were not worked out of the systems. The learning curve was still high, the technical support was still limited, and the equipment was still not performing on a consistent basis. In addition, a separation between the haves and have-nots was developing.

Innovators were already demanding more in the ways in which they could analyze their data. They had several years of yield data and were already starting the familiar chant "What do we do with this data?" with the subsequent answer "Wait until you have three, four, or five years of yield data" (this depended on how many years were already gathered-if a farmer had three, then he needed four, if he had four then he needed to have five!). At this point in the growing industry, some producers did have five years of yield data. This meant that the innovators were ready for advanced software that would do statistical analysis, build prescriptions, and maintain quality.

Having six years of yield maps means needing fundamental analysis techniques to get additional information from those maps.

The early adopters still needed ready-to-use, simplified software and hardware-like plug and play. These early adopters were most interested in making a yield map and that was it!

This put the manufacturers in a position of trying to provide more robustness in their software as well as simplify it for those trying to use it for the first time. I can remember a producer talking about the need for analysis instead of just pretty maps and pressing an industry representative about it. Later, this same representative was caught by a farmer who insisted that the software was much too difficult and needed to be simplified.

During the late 1990s and early twenty-first century, there was a point where it seemed that the industry almost started to go backwards. Many of the early adopters simply did not want to experiment anymore. Many tried it, got frustrated with it, and got out of it before current processes and support were refined. Many of the precision farming industries, though they had a good product, had insufficient support resources. Manuals and personnel to provide technical support were lacking. Industry wanted a better-trained workforce, and the workforce wanted a more intuitive technology package.

Education during this period was minimal. Several degree programs were in the process of being developed. Many universities and colleges had classes in development, but most of these classes were introductory GPS and GIS classes with limited application or critical thinking types of skills being taught.

Economics also had an impact at this time. The agriculture industry was not exceptionally profitable, and though experts insisted that these were times in which precision farming could assist the producer in making a profit, it was difficult to start a new management system.

The positive result of this extended plateau for precision farming implementation is that producers started to recognize precision farming as a management system. The technology had gone from fancy toys on a tractor to being viewed as additional tools for farmers to use and a management system that changed the way farmers could view their data.

Early Majority

I believe that as we are several years into the twenty-first century, it appears that precision farming has started an increase in its usage again. Though some people feel that agriculture is still on the plateau of Early Adopters, I believe that currently the industry has started moving into the Early Majority. Though this could be argued and there is no accurate way of measuring the early majority, there are several indicators.

Several technologies discussed earlier have turned the corner of respectability and consistency. Equipment is easier to install, is more compatible, and works more consistently. For example, previously the connection between a GPS receiver and a data collection device might have required two different cables, a null modem, and a gender changer. Now there are cable manufacturers that are producing direct cables, or there are wireless solutions to transferring the GPS data.

Newer GPS allows a direct connection to the handheld PC without cables.

Technical support is more readily available. Instead of helping producers with clarifying the difference between a CD tray and coffee cup tray, tech support people and the customers are more knowledgeable. Problems that occur have been documented along with the solution.

Assistance to the farmer currently needs to be almost one on one. When the producer has fundamental skills and can troubleshoot, tech support will be more effective. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service)

There are more options regarding equipment and software. This gives the producer flexibility and, along with that, compatibility. The producer can select a complete system (such as Deere or CNH/Ag Leader) or can mix and match components. The choices come down to the production goals and management objectives that the producer has for its precision agriculture system.

User-friendliness has increased in many systems. Software design has made operation of the equipment and work on the computer much more intuitive. If a producer knows Windows-based software, which is becoming more of the case, the producer can operate this software.

Finally, the producer has a variety of options in how to get into precision farming. Precision farming used to mean high investment dollars to get the equipment. Producers are starting to realize that they do not have to buy everything; they can do a piece of precision agriculture without buying everything. As an example, a yield monitor is not the only way in which a producer may get started. Light bars and parallel tracking devices are becoming very popular, even though the farmer may not have any other precision agriculture tools.

Light bars provide a row of lights that indicate the accuracy of the line of travel. A green light in the middle means being on the proper track. (Courtesy of Ag Leader)

This all makes precision farming much less of a risk, easier to operate, and more comfortable to the majority of producers. This has encouraged more people to get into precision agriculture, and these are arguably the early majority.

Currently, education opportunities are increasing. There are several colleges that have well-established degree programs in precision agriculture or have integrated GPS, GIS, and precision farming processes into their curriculum. An increasing number of workshops and seminars are being hosted by the industry. However, in some cases these qualify as training, which teaches participants which button to press, compared to education, which expects to teach why and when to press which button. A combination of both is needed.

The Future, Late Majority

The industry has matured from collecting data to analysis. We have gone from innovators to early adopters and are starting to see the early majority take the leap into precision farming. The next step is the late majority. The number of producers getting into precision farming will continue to increase as it becomes more of an accepted practice. It will also increase because of the shifting and ever-changing technology. Technology will continue to become more scaleable, lower cost, smaller, and easier to operate. Following is a discussion of some of the current technologies and the course that they may take in the future.

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