Farming by satellite is not a dream of the distant future

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TRESA ERICKSON
It’s Sunday afternoon, and you’re getting ready for the game. You’ve got the remote, the chips and the soda. You flop into the recliner and switch on the TV. Miles away, a satellite dish receives a signal from a satellite in space and transforms it into the game you are about to watch.

At a farm across town, a similar event is taking place. A combine antenna receives a signal from a satellite in space and transfers it to a computer, providing the farmer with information about his fields, including the exact location of the combine. The farmer is engaged in precision farming.

In precision farming, satellites collect data about a farm and transfer information back to the farmer on his computer. The farmer can then analyze the data himself or hire a company to do it for him.

Some farmers have already benefited from the use of this technology. Images from the satellites Landsat and SPOT have been used to identify areas that are under stress on a farm.

But the cost to obtain these images is high. To monitor by satellite the conditions of a typical 2,500 acre farm in the Midwest, a farmer would have to pay $3,500 every two weeks. Most farmers cannot afford this, so researchers are looking into ways to make the technology more affordable.

Because it is so costly, precision farming is more popular in the West, where farms are larger. There, most farmers use Global Positioning Sensing, a series of military satellites that identify the location of farm equipment within a meter of the actual site in the field.

Pinpointing the location of a piece of equipment can help farmers determine the quality of the land in that location. In the spring, the farmer’s fields are mapped out on a computer, and each field map is transformed into a field grid.

At harvest, satellite signals determine the location of the combine on the field grid. Meanwhile, the combine’s computer gathers yield data for each square in the grid.

As the data are analyzed, the farmer may discover a difference in yields among the squares in the grid. While one square may have produced 175 bushels of beans per acre, another might have only produced 150 bushels per acre.

The farmer can then test the soil in each of the squares to determine the reason for the different yields. The square that produced more, for example, may have more nutrients than the one that produced less.

The typical farmer has too many acres to test, but with precision farming, he can pinpoint areas that need testing and then adjust his practices to meet the needs of those areas.

For example, after discovering that a particular square produced less because it lacked nutrients, he can take that knowledge and apply it to the crops in the fall. Armed with a computerized soil map of his field and satellite signals indicating where he is in the field, the farmer can add more fertilizer to the area of the field that needs it when he comes to it.

Farmers who use precision farming tend to have a better idea of what it takes to produce the greatest yields. They rarely purchase more supplies than necessary and use them only where needed, saving time and money.

But, precision farming isn’t as easy as it sounds. Farmers may know which squares to test, but determining why those squares are bearing smaller yields can be difficult.

Factors, like nitrogen levels in the soil, fluctuate throughout the season, so it may take months before the cause is pinpointed. Even if the cause is determined, deciding how to correct the problem can be difficult.

Precision farming requires a lot of intensive labor, including field mapping, soil testing, data analysis and record keeping, another reason small farmers choose not to do it. Those who do use it, however, benefit and may benefit even more in the future with the addition of geographic information systems to GPS.

Several companies are now marketing GIS record keeping systems that allow farmers to record details, such as the type of equipment used and the weather at the time, and personal notes as well, such as an increase in weed growth.

This information is combined with the GPS data and documented in the GIS system for the farmer’s future use.

As the technology becomes more affordable, precision farming will become a way of life for many farmers in the future. Those who once farmed by the mile may soon be farming by the foot.

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