Precision Agriculture

Chapters 6 and 8 in Unnaturally Delicious were two of the most enjoyable to write because I got to learn about some of the amazing things going on in my own town and university.  

Chapter 6 focuses on the story of David Waits, who created SST Software, a company focused on data management solutions for farmers, particularly geo-spatial information.  While most farmers are today accustomed to seeing colorful yield maps showing which areas of the field are providing more and less grain, most food consumers have no idea of how much information and complexity goes into running a modern farm.

They key for farmers is to combine yield information with spatially-lined information on varieties planted, soil characteristics, etc. so that more precise decisions can made, for example, on fertilizer applications (to help prevent nitrogen runoff and increase yields).  

I write:

Today SST Software is one of the leading agricultural suppliers of geographic decision support tools in the world. SST houses data on more than 100 million acres of farmland in twenty-three countries from Australia to Africa. At the heart of the operation is software that consists of relational databases that link information about the use of farm inputs to geographic identifiers and to site-specific information about soils, moisture, and much more. Some farmers can use SST’s software directly themselves, but given the size and complexity of today’s farms, the rapid pace of technological change, and the expertise needed in entomology, agronomy, and economics, many farmers rely on consultants to help make management decisions. As a result, SST’s biggest clients are crop consulting companies like Crop Quest and Servi-Tech and seed and chemical suppliers like Monsanto and Helena Chemical. These companies often work with farmers to send to SST information on soil samples, pesticide and fertilizer applications, yields, insect scouting reports, and seed varieties planted. The companies use these data to make site-specific fertilizer or planting recommendations. For example, based on his company’s agronomic models, an adviser might use SST software to identify which areas of a field should receive which kinds of fertilizer and in which amounts—a recommendation that can be sent electronically to a variable rate spreader that communicates with satellites to determine when and where to apply which mix of fertilizers. Given the high cost of seed, new variable-rate planters are also coming on the market. A thumb drive loaded with a recommendation from SST can be plugged into a planter, which can plant two different corn hybrids at different seeding rates and at different depths throughout the field. SST doesn’t make recommendations; it provides the mechanism for translating an agronomist’s recommendation into an action plan.

I had the chance to play around with their software a bit myself, and it is truly amazing how many possible decisions a modern commercial farmer today has to make - something many critics of modern agriculture scarcely comprehend.  Here's what I had to say after talking about different decisions on seed choice and fertilizer choice:

Each field might have 100,000 possible items of information linked to it in a given year, and that doesn’t begin to count the combinations of management decisions the farmer might have to make when mixing a particular type of seed with a particular soil type and a particular fungicide.

Later in Chapter 8, I also talked about Bill Raun, an agronomy professor at Oklahoma State University (more on him later) who is also working on precision agriculture applications.  Along with some engineers he created the GreenSeeker, which is:

is a handheld device that senses the color of the plants’ leaves and, along with other information—such as the date the crop was planted—provides a recommendation of how much nitrogen to apply to satisfy the plants’ needs. The sensors can also be placed atop a tractor or fertilizer applicator so that, as a farmer drives through a corn or wheat field, the amount of nitrogen applied changes in response to what the GreenSeeker is “seeing.” Today several companies make the GreenSeeker and related technologies commercially available to farmers all over the world. Adoption has been limited by the cost of the technology, lack of precision, and the low cost of alternatives, like simply applying a uniform rate of nitrogen throughout portions of the field before planting.

Bill has a lot of amazing pictures at his website, here is one with several GreenSeeker's attached to a fertilizer applicator.