Precision agriculture, or precision ag, isn’t simple – but it is fascinating. As this revolutionary wave of agronomy techniques and technologies sweeps our globe, it can be tricky to understand what is happening and how it will impact our societies and landscapes. Farmers using artificial intelligence? Yield maps drafted from data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles? That’s the truth of it. And while Bessie the beloved cow is hopefully still out there, enjoying her pasture, farming practices have radically shifted from the bucolic, pastoral images of yore.
So what is precision agriculture exactly? First of all, it is a concept of farm management with many names. Some examples include precision agriculture (PA), satellite farming, or site-specific crop management (SSCM). Whatever the name, it is a precision and goal-driven practice of careful observation, measuring, and reacting to growing conditions and crop variability. The goal is to continuously determine and define decision support systems (DSS) with a holistic approach – making the most of resources while preserving their long-term health and sustainability.
For those of us without a degree in farming, a lot of the terms listed above will make very little sense at first glance. The overarching theme here is that while farming might be slower to the technological up-take than other industries, even the seeds we plant and the food we growing is increasingly determined by mechanics and digitalization.
So how does precision ag look in practice? You shouldn’t have to have a degree in agriculture in order to understand, so let’s dig in and break this precision-driven process down with some laymen’s terms.
Hopefully, this goes without saying, but we’ll touch on it anyway: no acre of land is the same, and even within one acre, there can be wide variation in soil condition, moisture accumulation, and other elements that impact crops and profitability. Farmers, and really anyone who spends quality time outside, can tell you that land shifts and changes in real-time. Transformations can happen over years, seasons repaint a place, and reshuffles can happen in mere moments due to weather, drought, or a 17-year-coming cicada hatch. Crop health depends on informed decision-making and careful attention to detail. This is especially true in the dynamic environments of our world.
Pair this with the understanding that all of our lives have been transformed by the burgeoning power of digital technology – growers, farmers, and crop producers included.
There are considered to be two categories of agriculture digitalization in the last 40 years. Firstly, there are biological innovations. This pertains to genetic modifications and manipulation of seeds and livestock with regard to desirable traits, hormones, and pesticides. These technologies are hotly debated and a flashpoint for concerned citizens in both rural and urban areas.
Secondly, and maybe an area that many people are less politicized by, there is the farm machinery and mechanization. The practice of farming has been completely transformed by computerized information. This is the category in which we find precision farming.
It is important to note that the concept of precision Agriculture is not just a single technology. More so, it is a system of various technologies that interlock and interact to gather information and utilize data efficiently.
Traditionally, mechanized agriculture would apply crop treatments according to fields’ “average” conditions of soil, nutrients, water, weeds, and growth patterns. But because there can be so much variability, to go off of averages contributed to vast amounts of wasted resources and did not account for the intimate knowledge that any farmer worth their salt needs to understand intuitively. Because farmers couldn’t be specific with their mechanization, they would often under or overuse applications of (arguably) necessary additives and chemicals. For decades this inability of machines to react specifically has been a plaguing problem in land use and crop yields.
Data management and impressively advanced data gathering methods are now an integral part of crop production. Farmers are using some futuristic means to collect the specific information and minute stories of the land. Here are some of the basic technology systems that go into a precision farm operation.
GPS stands for global positioning system. And while you use the same technology to navigate a summer road trip, farmers are using it to locate a precise position in a given area via their machines. By knowing exactly where they are, they can map out the spatial variability in excruciating detail. Along with this map are detailed measurements of organic matter content, terrain, moisture levels, nitrogen levels, and other aspects.
For example, by knowing the exact location when soil sampling, a farmer can understand how best to utilize and enhance the soil properties.
Farmers can also mount GPS sensors on their equipment, such as combine harvesters. This allows them to measure things like chlorophyll and water content in real-time and with remote sensing.
In tandem with GPS capabilities, farmers will use satellite imagery to compound their data. Using variable rate technology (VRT) via satellite, farmers can best distribute resources to a given area, but not waste them in areas that require less. Images from space help to dictate the movements of where to seed, where to spread fertilizer, pesticides, and determine water distribution.
Yes, drones and unmanned aerial vehicles are part of precision farming too – enabling even more detailed and precise measurements. This technology is designed to be relatively inexpensive, contrary to what one might first assume. Agriculture drones tout multispectral cameras that capture images that can later be stitched together. This is especially helpful technology in constructing accurate topography maps. With detailed topography maps, farmers can correlate crop health with elevation and can better plan and measure their inputs. This includes things like water, pesticides, and other chemicals that can buoy an annual crop yield or improve the soil in seasons to come.
Farmers use variable-rate technology to determine where to input particular resources and optimize their precision agriculture technology into strategic management decisions.
Variable-rate application is the technical term for the process of a crop producer applying different rates of fertilizer, pesticides, and other treatments to specific areas across seeded and seeding fields. It requires an in-cab computer in farm machinery (like a Deere tractor) as well as the appropriate software.
So clearly, precision farming uses new technologies and big data to optimize crop growth and crop yields, and therefore profitability.
And yes, we’ve come a long way from Old Mcdonald’s farm. Many people do not realize this is the case since our modern populations are largely urban. But when you really think about it, agriculture incorporates technological revolutions through thousands of years of development.
The timeline of agriculture is a fascinating timeline through history. We won’t get into the ancient history of it all today, but most historians recognize the first modern agricultural revolution as aligned with broadly mechanized practices – think tractors and combines. This took place in the first few decades of the 20th century and was a time when most farmers grew enough food to feed about 30 people per year. Later on, the Green Revolution took place in the 1960s. And due to GMO technologies, farmers increased their crop yields to be able to feed around 150 people per year.
Scientists predict that our global population will reach over 9 billion people by 2050. In the midst of that population surge upon a warming world, precision farming is the third wave of our modern agricultural revolution. Industry professionals lift up these technologies as a way to meet the demand of so many hungry mouths. And truly, it will be a massive challenge to do so.
These ongoing changes in agriculture and agribusiness are foundational components of how our societies formed and continue to shift through time. As the demands of society have changed, so has farming. As our capacity to collect and analyze data has increased with computational devices, so has our ability to apply models, predictions, and automation to arable land. Farmers today are working within an agronomic system that requires them to also be engineers, technicians, and data analysts. Precision farming requires strong bridges between growers, researchers, and an ever-shifting global industry.
So, is precision farming actually sustainable agriculture?
Pre-precision agriculture, crop producers were applying blankets of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides according to their determined averages. But often, this was creating blankets of overuse which would then runoff or leach from fields and contaminating groundwater and surface water, not to mention decimating pollinator populations and killing the living biome of soil in their fields.
Crop producers have cut labor costs due to mechanization, and look to variable-rate technologies to further minimize costs of inputs while also working to mitigate environmental concerns. In some ways, this site-specific management (SSM) is actually akin to traditional farming practices. Obviously, farms used to be a lot smaller and farmers were able to cater to the specificity of land by hand. We’ve come full circle on intimate land knowledge and location-specific practices via computers.
But the environmental impacts of certain agriculture techniques are devastatingly wide. And while digital agriculture empowers farmers (and/or engineers) to optimize land in an efficient way, that doesn’t mean that monocrops, pesticides, and herbicides aren’t any less of a threat to our planet. Runoff from chemicals and animal excrement continue to pollute our land and water. This is true no matter how precisely these details are documented.
Scholars critique the dominant narrative of precision farming being a “more environmentally friendly means of food production” and instead argue that this rhetoric is actually an effort to “shore up and intensify the conventional farming system responsible for generating many of the social and environmental problems precision agriculture is presented as solving.” Big Ag is big ag is big ag – and our ecosystems suffer immensely in the wake of destruction and alteration inherent to the practice.
Advocates for precision farming insist that this “revolution” into digital agriculture is a radical shift towards democratizing food production and staving off ecological ruin. But we must ask ourselves hard questions about these claims. Is this truly any different than the extractive, exploitive practices that have dominated the past century? Is this more of the same capitalistic rationalization, steeped in a manic frenzy of production and automation?
Ultimately, it depends on the farmer and the agribusiness that they are running. The techniques of precision agriculture do wield overwhelming amounts of data collection. Data becomes information that can be used to grow crops and also steward and protect land and water. Precision farming might be a transformational agricultural wave into the future. Either way, we still have a long way to go – and not much time to get there.
The challenges of the climate crisis and political flaccidity in the face of devastation will determine the future. Conversations about big ag vs organic small-scale operations are polarized. We don’t have much space for common ground. The reality is that we will need all hands on deck in weathering this storm. Indigenous-led initiatives, organic farmers, and back-to-the-land movements are working hard to preserve, remind and empower the masses to actually care about the land where they live and to act in respect and reverence to both the past and future of our planet. Ultimately, corporations run most large-scale agricultural operations, not families. And we struggle to hold these corporations accountable.
But some 9 billion people will need food and water to survive. Technology has a role to play as well. As we imagine our shared and individual futures, we can pair ancient technologies, intuition, and belonging with computerized innovations. Food production must be collaborative. As a restorative practice and industry, it will continue to function and meet the demands of communities.
Similar to the practice of precision farming, these solutions will be varied and unique. Just like the landscapes and communities of people that enact them. There is not a single, silver-bullet answer to the challenges we face. Our solutions will need to be as diverse, symbiotic, and creative as the biodiversity we witness on Earth.