This article appeared on Wired.Com’s site here. We thank Mr. Blair for his past contributions and for his technological pioneering for the Agriculture industry. Credit to writer Alexis Madrigal for her great article.
It was 1903 when Robert Blair’s great-grandfather began farming the dry ridge overlooking the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho. In 2001, when Blair took the reins, the farm’s books were still kept by hand. Now, he has deployed a set of Darpa-like technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles and self-steering tractors.
“In six years, I went from just having a cell phone to my tractor driving itself, and having a small airplane flying and landing itself on a farm,” Blair said.
The new precision farmers are hacking together a way of making food in which the virtual and physical worlds are so tightly bound that having his tractor steered by GPS-guidance with inch-level accuracy is ho-hum. Autosteering of farm machinery has exploded over the past several years, according to an annual survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business. In 2004, just 5 percent of agricultural retail outlets offered autosteering. In 2008, more than half did.
“RTK is so much more relaxing. It allows you to multitask, and that (allows) me to spend more time with my family,” Montana wheat farmer told Steven Swank. “I even watched a DVD in the cab with my daughter recently.”
Blair, at 40, is a leader of this next generation of farmers who are adapting the precision dreams of the ’90s to the realities of the soil and the history of their acreage. People dreamed of vastly reducing pesticide and fertilizer use by applying just the right amount to each plant, but the variable-rate technologies have been only patchily adopted. Instead, a new crop of younger growers has started to use something like augmented reality. Data draped over their land guides their tractors and their decision-making.
“The big story is the generational shift going on right now,” said Joe Russo, president of the agriculture technology company, ZeDX. “The younger people are starting to get ahold of these farms and they have a much different attitude to technology. They Twitter, they got smartphones, they’re always on the computer. Precision ag is gonna ride that wave.”
Farmers have adopted autosteer, especially, because it has made them money. By eliminating the slop-space that even the best farm machinery operators needed, it allows them to put more rows in their fields, effectively increasing their per-acre yields. For high-value crops, it was an obvious technology to adopt.
“The payback was so much more than variable rate ever was that it was a no-brainer,” said Paul Schrimpf, who has been covering precision agriculture for the magazine CropLife.
Blair wants to push further, though. He’s leading a charge to adapt unmanned aerial vehicles — like the Predator Drones zipping across Afghanistan — to the task of crop surveillance. In true maker fashion, he’s not waiting for the technology to be delivered to him. He has founded a company and built a prototype of his UAV that uses an off-the-shelf digital camera to take photos of his farm.
The images it produces aren’t just pretty pictures, they can be converted into data that can be used in water, fertilizer and pesticide decision-making.
Based on the color data captured by the CCD, Blair can obtain a value called the normalized differential vegetative index, which he can use to find patterns in his fields.
“Now we have a numeric value and we can write an algorithm to find different things,” Blair explained. “Is a stressed crop showing a different value than one that’s healthy?”
Farmers like Blair have antecedents in the farmer-scientists of the Green Revolution, but ever-cheaper information technology has let them map the data to their land with ever greater resolution. Blair is slowly turning the vast, uncontrolled experiment that is his farm into a living laboratory that also happens to make money.