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This article appeared on Wired. Com's site . We thank 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 lopid 300mg pills (brand ) $311.00 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 . In 2004, just 5 percent of agricultural retail outlets offered autosteering. In 2008, more than half did. In a 2009 issue of , Montana wheat farmer Steven Swank described the benefits of a souped-up GPS called “” (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 . “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 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 , 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 , 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. 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 [lopid 300mg pills (brand ) $311.00] 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 . 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. 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 . 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 : “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 lopid 300mg pills (brand ) $311.00, 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. Lopid 300mg pills (brand ) $311.00 ” 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 . 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.

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