Precision agriculture technology helps farmers
Stephen Fowler/Georgia Public Broadcasting
Lee Nunn has the first tractor his grandfather ever bought sitting on his farm in Madison, about an hour east of Atlanta: a 1968 John Deere 4020 that’s bright green and still runs like a dream. At the time, it was a technological marvel, with a 90 horsepower engine, a canopy roof – and zero computers. “This was the first tractor model back in the day – Now think, it’s 1968 – that had an automatic cigarette lighter in 1968 and his people thought it was the absolute best thing in the world,” he said Nunn.
But a few rows down is what Nunn drives today, a John Deere 8360 engine that is equipped with air conditioning, heated seats, tinted windows and other modern conveniences that make those 10-12 hour days in -a little more bearable field. “Farming has come a long way, we are now a little before the days of straw hats and overalls,” said Nunn, noting that his operation is a far cry from his grandfather’s tractor.
Another thing that has come a long way is technology that guides a growing field in ag that marries innovative equipment with good old-fashioned farming, also known as precision agriculture.
“Precision agriculture in the broadest terms is a system by which we can deliver exactly what a set of plants need when they need it, no more and no less,” said Eric Elsner, who runs J. Phil Campbell. Sr. of the University of Georgia. Research and Education Centre.
“Precision ag technology can help that farmer make really complex decisions that are better decisions than if we left it up to the human mind and human nature,” he said.
Precision agriculture helps farmers save money by using less water and fertilizer and releasing fewer pesticides into the environment. It leverages real-time data to maximize their performance.
Practically for Lee Nunn, that means having GPS that guides his tractor steering with sub-inch accuracy, and the pulling equipment has sensors that send a range of data up to the cloud and into the shovel of his hand. “It records everything you’re doing: speed, direction, what kind of seeds I’m planting, how many seeds I’m planting per acre per foot, the depth of the seed,” he said. “I’ve actually got one piece of equipment that measures soil temperature and soil moisture as I go around the field.”
Nunn grows crops such as wheat, soybeans, wheat and cotton on 1,500 acres and has seen firsthand the evolution in precision agriculture technology.
“The accuracy of the GPS is one thing that amazes: This tractor can drive itself within an inch every year on the same line.”
Barriers and burdens to wider use Nunn has been using precision agriculture in some form for the past ten years and is an evangelist of the financial and environmental benefits it brings. But he said there are obstacles to more widespread adoption among small and medium farmers. If you can afford the expensive equipment, spotty broadband can make it difficult to access the data created by the machines. And if you’ve got internet speed, these ag tech innovations don’t always play nice on different machines or brands, like trying to use an Apple cable to charge an Android phone. In agricultural terms, who owns a green tractor from one company and wants to add a red plow from a different one, Nunn said, something that can’t really work without getting a third party to help put them together. “To be honest, that’s just another added cost, another added headache, another added piece of electrical equipment on top of a piece of farm equipment,” he said. “So what we would like to see is some kind of standard where all these different manufacturers’ pieces of equipment will operate together seamlessly.”
That’s something lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree on. They are too push for grants to make precision ag technology more affordable. Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune have a bill that would create standards for precision agriculture. It also has incentives for companies to make sure those green tractors and red plows work better together. Warnock recently met with Nunn and other farmers for a demonstration that included self-driving tractors, drones and other precision technology at a University of Georgia farm. During a roundtable discussion they talked about ways the federal government can strengthen the use of these innovations. “We saw today the enormous difference that this technology is already making, but it could be much better,” Warnock told reporters after the visit. “What I heard again from these farmers today is that it is important that these different technologies, whether they are drones or robotics or monitors, to be able to talk to each other.”
Both farmers and lawmakers hope the legislation will make it into the omnibus Farm Bill later this year.