The precision farming transformation began in the Midwest in the 1980s.
“You look at ‘86, ‘87, ‘88, I equate it to the moon launch of precision agriculture,” said CropLife’s Schrimpf. “You had guys putting 286 boxes into cabs and using aerial imagery that was shot by a plane and trying to use it to control an applicator.”
It gathered steam amidst the noise and fury of the internet boom, but only now has precision farming spread to the rest of the country and truly begun to impact the lives of farmers. Sixty-eight percent of farmers have tried or use some precision farming technique, according to a Farm Industry News reader survey. Questions remain, though, about how much precision farming is going to change the big picture problems that food system critics like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan have identified.
Genetic engineering of crops and precision engineering used to be presented as the technological fixes to the agricultural challenges of our era. They were going to keep farming profitable enough to keep people putting out enough food to feed the nearly 7 billion people of the world — while minimizing environmental downsides of industrial farming.
William Booth in a 1999 Wired article breathlessly summarized the promise of precision farming: “If machines and computers can help a farmer apply just the exact amount of disincentive and encouragement, exactly where it is needed, it will not only save billions of dollars and jack up profits, but give the farmland and the surrounding streams and forests a much needed respite from the relentless dousing of nasty and wasteful fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.”
The scientific research on the ability of precision agriculture to reduce chemical usage is somewhat mixed, but on balance, a review by agronomists Jess Lowenberg-Deboer of Purdue University and Rudolfo Bongiovani of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in Argentina found decided benefits.
“Most of the papers reviewed indicate that PA can contribute in many ways to long-term sustainability of production agriculture, confirming the intuitive idea that PA should reduce environmental loading by applying fertilizers and pesticides only where they are needed, when they are needed,” they wrote in a paper published in a 2004 paper in the journal Precision Agriculture.
“The concepts of precision agriculture (PA) and sustainability are inextricably linked,” they concluded.
But even some precision ag proponents aren’t sure that the technologies will solve the big problems that the globe’s food system faces.
“From a macro perspective, I don’t know that there is a direct correlation between precision farming and massive increases in yield that could help feed the world,” said Nate Taylor, who works with Russo at ZeDX.
Long-time precision farming researcher, John Phillips, who recently retired from his post at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, said much the same about the environmental benefits that precision farming could deliver. Precision farming could be “a big player” in reducing the amount of nitrogen that leaches into groundwater, but it wouldn’t be the primary solution.
“We’d have to see some changes in the rest of the farming system,” Phillips said.
And the economic benefits? Croplife’s Schrimpf said that the profitability — and adoption — of technologies that reduce environmental impacts tend to float on the sea of natural gas prices.
“In years when fertilizer is expensive, dealers can possibly sell precision farming on the fact that you could save fertilizer at the end of the day,” Schrimpf said. “When fertilizer is really cheap, growers don’t necessarily get that benefit.”
Instead of investing in and committing to precision agriculture, they just purchase variable-rate services, say, in some years from specialized companies.
For all those reasons, everyone agrees that precision agriculture hasn’t taken off as quickly as people thought it might. Farming, though, is changing in ways that would be shocking in any industry, let alone human civilization’s oldest and most fundamental one.
In 1903, when Blair’s great-grandfather founded the farm, there was exactly one working airplane and few cars in the entire world. More than 35 percent of the U.S. population farmed for a living. There was no synthetic fertilizer. No hybrid plant varieties. No transistors. Most power on the farm came from human and animal muscles. Change might seem to come slowly to farms. And the many techno-utopian farms imagined in the past never seem to come about, but in just a few generations of a long-lived family, the layers of technology can create astounding change.
“We’ve gone from horses to tractors driving themselves,” Blair concluded.