Nothing is more important in agriculture than place…Farmers have always gained the knowledge necessary to understand a place through hard-won and rarely transferable experience…Farmers’ personal relationship to place, one of the salient facts that distinguish agriculture, is about to change…
Most combines traveling across fields in the Midwest this fall had a GPS receiver located in the front of the cab. Although agriculture has been experimenting with this technology for a decade or so, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology. For several years, farmers have had the ability to map yields with global positioning data. Using that information, firms can design “prescriptions” for the farmer, who uses the “scrips” to apply seed and fertilizer in varying amounts across the field. Where the yield maps show soil with a lower yield potential, the prescription calls for fewer seeds and less fertilizer. This use of an individual farmer’s data to design a different program for each square meter in a field spanning hundreds of acres could replace a farmer’s decades of experience with satellites and algorithms. What we have gained in efficiency and by avoiding the overuse of scarce and potentially environmentally damaging inputs, we may be losing in the connections of the farm family to the ancestral place. Precision technology will allow managers to cover more acres more accurately and will likely lead to increasing size and consolidation of farms.
Advice for individual fields is only the beginning of the uses for this technology. The leading agricultural equipment firm, John Deere, is running a pilot program this fall with 500 farms and 1,000 combines across the Midwest. Data is uploaded every several hours to the cloud, where it can be used…well, we don’t really know all the ways it can be used.
…we’ll roll the dice on surviving the transition to a data-driven agriculture. Farming will be more efficient, more environmentally responsible, and easier to regulate and measure. But it won’t be the same.