Fellow Blogger Embraces Techno-Farming

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.

In a 2009 issue of Precision Farmer Magazine, Montana wheat farmer Steven Swank described the benefits of a souped-up GPS called “real-time kinematic” (RTK) satellite navigation.

“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.”

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