by Roberto Samarron, Designer
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower was referring to the “synthetic farmers behind Washington desks” who love to tell real farmers what to do. But with the colossal advancements in agricultural technology, his words ring true in this digital age. Today’s pencil is a stylus or a finger on a touch screen, which allow tech-savvy farmers to manage agricultural operations “a thousand miles from the corn field.” While this may sound like a breeze, agriculture technology comes with a steep learning curve and managing these modern devices presents traditional farmers with new challenges.
GPS (Global Positioning System) farming, also known as precision farming or site-specific farming, utilizes satellites to pinpoint the location of raw data on seeds and soil—depth, temperature, climate, moisture content, and soil health. This data is input into computer systems that analyze the data and enable farmers to map their fields to make more informed decisions about their farming operations. GPS farming has raised expectations for better yields, less waste, and greater accuracy with pesticides and fertilizers.
A yield map is a visualization of the aggregated data on soils and seeds. Farmers use yield maps to identify the swaths of land with the best yields and to determine the ideal areas to plant specific crops. The areas in red represent locations that have low soil quality and production value and drain resources. This visual aide helps farmers make data-driven decisions that reduce labor cost and risk and increase crop yield and value.
While yield monitors have been around since the 90s, farmers have been skeptical of letting computer systems dictate how and where to plant their crops. But more and more farmers are beginning to adopt new technologies. Responses from a 2015 survey of 126 Nebraska farmers revealed that 98% uses soil sampling, 94% needs a computer with high-speed internet access, and more than 80% uses yield monitors and maps and GPS guidance systems. Roughly 68% of respondents use variable rate technology. Variable rate technology tracks the depths of individual seeds and the spatial relationships between both individual seeds and rows of seeds. This affords farmers a micro understanding of the needs of individual seeds and a macro understanding of their farm acreage as a whole—the most productive swaths for to grow specific crops and the underproductive swaths that call for closer evaluation.
The advantages that agricultural technologies have delivered to farming are undeniable—cutting costs and reducing resource consumption and waste. Thanks to the precision of GPS locations, crop dusters can pinpoint exactly where to spray. (Previously they relied on human “flaggers” to guide them, using flashlights aimed at the aircraft and risking human exposure to harmful pesticides.) In 2005, the United States launched a second civil signal on GPS satellites, increasing bandwidth for agricultural applications, and has plans to launch a third civil signal dedicated to agricultural and water informatics. Drones are seeing increasing adoption in agriculture, with farmers using them to survey their land, track livestock, and spray areas of infestation with even greater precision.
The high-tech automation of agriculture is making farm life more autonomous (if you will) for big agriculture, and more attainable for the everyman who wants to live off the land. Automated steering, assisted steering systems, and intelligent guidance systems are helping to eliminate human error and increase productivity. Paired with GPS and GIS, farmers are now able to farm more effectively and accurately even in adverse weather conditions like rain, fog, dust, wind, nighttime hours, that could once wipe out crop production.
 Castle, Mike, Bradley D. Lubben, and Joe Luck. “Precision Agriculture Usage and Big Agriculture Data”. Cornhusker Economics. 27.March.2015. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Web. 21 January 2017.
“Applications: Agriculture.” GPS.Gov. National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing. 12 October 2016. Web. 21 January 2017.
Castle, Mike, Bradley D. Lubben, and Joe Luck. “Precision Agriculture Usage and Big Agriculture Data”. Cornhusker Economics. 27.March.2015. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Web. 21 January 2017.
“Precision Farming: Key Technologies and Concepts.” CEMA aisbl – European Agricultural Machinery. Web 21 January 2017.