Innovating on a farm is tough. Raising living things is not software development: Biology takes time, an iteration takes a year. Being pegged to the cycle of the Earth rotating around the sun makes farmers a little more conservative than those who spend every waking moment bathed in fluorescent light and charged on Mountain Dew. Still, some farmers press ahead trying to use technology to fatten their margins. Blair’s e-mail signature includes the Thomas Jefferson quote, “I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements.”
Here’s how precision agriculture works on Blair’s farm. He has incorporated several pieces of of the overall platform including yield monitors, boom control, variable rate applications and autosteering.
First, he installed yield monitors, which are a kind of real-time scale that records the amount of wheat harvested in small chunks of a field. They’ve become increasingly popular because they quantify the kind of hard-won data that farmers used to spend decades understanding: what parts of their land are the best (and the worst).
“What the technology has allowed us to do is to see where those areas are and define them,” Blair said.
The yield monitors generate maps (as in the small image) that tell Blair which parts of his fields produce 120 bushels of wheat and which just 20. With that resolution, he can manage that land according to what it needs.
To determine the optimal fertilization and chemical inputs for different areas of his farm, Blair conducted tests over a period of five years to figure out how his crops responded to different amounts of nitrogen. Often, he’ll reduce the amount of fertilizer on the poor producing areas of his land because their limiting factor isn’t nitrogen, but some other factor like water or another soil component. Now, his poor land planted with winter wheat might only get 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre instead of the 100 he’d put on the best land.
Beyond variable-rate application like this, Blair also uses automatically controlled sprayers. These booms, pipes with nozzles set into them at regular intervals, are mounted on farm machinery and used to apply chemicals and fertilizers. They tend to spray in large rectangles, even if the farm land isn’t a prefect rectangle. With automatic controls on the booms, they can be programmed to only spray on the farmland, not on adjacent areas. It might not seem like a major area for savings, but the math works.
“Let’s say you have two RoundUp sprayings at $20 a pop. Then insect spray at $30 an acre. That’s $70 an acre,” Blair said. “You’re able to save 10 percent, that’s $7 an acre.” Multiply that by the 1500 acres he farms, and it’s clear how quickly he could be paid back on any four-digit investment.
Lastly, autosteering makes it easier to run the farm and ensures that he doesn’t waste any land because of farm machinery operator mistakes.
“I get on a big field with my autosteer, as soon as I make sure I’m on the track, I’m on my PDA phone checking e-mail,” Blair said. “I’m looking at the internet. What’d the market do today? I’m reading news.”
Everything he does on his farm is devoted to gathering and using data to maximize the efficiency of his farm. “People that have vision of where agriculture is going to go seem to realize that the key is the databases,” Blair told PrecisionAg.com in a video to celebrating his 2009 win for Precision Farmer of the Year.
And it’s the search for more — and more timely — data that led him to developing his own UAV. He wanted to correlate what his fields looked like during the growing season with the yields at harvest time.
Blair’s UAV is hand-launched, which means that he literally runs, jumps and throws it in the air like a javelin. The craft locates itself and flies a predetermined path over his farm, sending back images like the one above.
Piloted fixed-wing aircraft can provide similar resolution, but Blair thinks his company can compete on price and deliver equal or better results. It’s possible to get similar photos from satellites, but the resolution (in time and space) isn’t good enough.
“With what I’ve been able to fly on my own farm, I’m looking at goldfish in a pond,” he said. And he can fly his UAV whenever he wants.
It’s some gee-whiz technology out on the Idaho ridge, but Russo of ZeDX, was skeptical. UAVs are relatively expensive and complex technology.
“There are not many farmers that are going to do that,” Russo said. “It’s not just the machine, but the time and changing your practices. All the backend costs.”
And, for the time being, the Federal Aviation Administration has not come up with rules for UAVs that would allow Blair to actually sell his UAVs or the images they produce. Like so many other precision farming techniques — and technologies more generally — the path from good idea to widespread implementation is likely to be a lot longer and difficult than first anticipated.