Farming has always been on the cutting-edge of new technology. From genetics to new machinery, dealing with bugs and weeds to fully understanding how to keep a plant fed, farmers are at the forefront of research in many areas.

Keeping up with the times

At the same time, farmers are very interested in their environmental impact. Coming out of the dustbowl problems of the 1930s, farmers have long recognized the need to conserve the farm, the soil and the quality of the rural landscape in order to pass down a better farm than the one they inherited. Over the last several decades, farmers have built terraces to cut down on soil erosion, shifted to no-till farming to keep soil intact and looked at new and state-of-the-art ways to keep the plant healthy.

Precision agriculture

One of the ways farmers are innovating is through the use of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is a large toolbox farmers draw from that includes everything from precisely locating one’s place in the field to data collection on a very fine scale, such as knowing exactly what a plant’s nutrient needs are in real time or integrating pest-management techniques.

“…farmers have long recognized the need to conserve the farm, the soil and the quality of the rural landscape in order to pass down a better farm than the one they inherited.”

Auto-steer tractors and other farm implements with GPS have created major advances in how we farm, down nearly to the pinpoint level. Farmers can now plant seeds precisely, apply nutrients directly and feed the plants exactly the amount they need. In the past, farmers essentially had to treat the entire field in order to ensure a crop was protected and had adequate nutrition. As an example, a farmer would typically provide for a 24-inch overlap as they made passes through a field. Today, that overlap is only a couple of inches. With this kind of precision, they now use weed and insect treatments only where needed. That amounts to serious savings for the farm, but it also benefits the environment. Reports from the Agriculture Department indicate corn farmers cut back on insecticide use by 90 percent between 1995 and 2010.

Big data

Big data means different things in agriculture. In most of the consumer world, big data relates to information on a big scale. In agriculture, it almost goes in the opposite direction, referring to a lot of data at a very fine scale. In the past we would have looked at a several hundred acre field as a single unit and made decisions on how that field was to be managed as that same single unit. Today, that same field may include thousands of data points. Each point may be subject to detailed analysis using soil type, daily weather, economics, projections of insect pressure and several other factors to guide the farmer on how to manage not only the field but almost (okay, not quite) individual plants.

This combination of equipment, precision placement and data collection, as well as analytics, place today’s agriculture at the cutting edge. Some people call it smart farming. It allows farmers to grow more with fewer inputs, and that’s good for their finances and the environment.