The Precision Farming Primer  
Current Practices and Future Directions

© 1999
Precision Farming Primer

plough_sm.gif (4683 bytes)

What’s Next in GIS on the Farm?

(return to the Table of Contents)

What’s Next in GIS on the Farm? (return to top)

In many respects, technology is as ingrained in farming as it is in the service, industrial and government sectors—maybe more.  Antennas sprout from tractor cabs, pickups and silos.  Computers are spreading like weeds from the old recreation room turned office into the barn, pastures and fields.  The cyber tentacles even reach into the breast pocket of many information-age farmers. 


Figure 1.  Dimensions in Technology Adoption.


Keep in mind that there are several dimensions to the adoption of technology.  It takes hold over time and moves through different potential user groups—innovators, early adopters, deliberate majority and laggards.  At any instant there are varying degrees of adoption within the general community.  About the time the majority fully engages a new technology the innovators are launching another one.  For example, as yield mapping gains acceptance the innovators are moving into prescription mapping.


This cycle has been with agriculture since its inception when the stick, fish head and seed in a hole was replaced by a hand plow.  What seems to have changed is the speed and breadth of the cycle.  As the information age takes hold on the farm the changes seem relentless.   But potentially more important is the unfamiliar breadth and complexity of the changes.


While the cell phone may revolutionize communication on the farm it builds on familiar technology spawned from the hand-crank party line.  Computer-based technology, on the other hand, has some conceptual roots in scrapes of paper and accounting books but there is a practical chasm between paperwork, digital records and spatial data. 


The application of mapped data in farm decision-making is unprecedented and GIS technology is hobbled from the get-go.  While the innovators and early adopters have made tremendous advances in site-specific agriculture, the industry hasn’t run the accelerating part of the adoption curve.  There are four factors at work in determining “what’s next in GIS on the farm” —education, economics, enlightenment, and environment. 


Education casts the broadest net.   While most producers’ experience is based in grease and gears the future raises the ante to megahertz and gigabytes.  The information age seems to value data and communications almost as much as the crop itself.  Identity preservation and crop records will become increasingly important in meeting marketplace demands.  A spin-off is an increased familiarity of service providers and producers with computers and electronic devices—the informational foundation of precision farming.  The sprouting of agricultural data warehouses helps lower the educational bar and provide needed support.


Economics serves as the lubricant for technology adoption.  A common sense argument and an intellectual challenge are enough to capture the attention of innovators, but numerous and convincing studies of economic benefit are required to persuade the majority.  The agricultural technology community needs to join forces and underwrite such objective studies as a means to cross the chasm from innovators to the majority of producers.


Enlightenment couples technology with science.  In a sense we have the technology cart in front of the science horse.  GPS-enabled devices provide positioning.  Remote sensing imagery provides timely views of crop condition.  GIS technology provides a framework for assembling and analyzing all of the information.  What’s missing is the science cornerstone that investigates the spatial relationships, generates definitive procedures and translates them into sound management actions. 


Environment is the trump card.  Stewardship of the land is in many respects the ultimate bottom line in agriculture.  Environmental compliance requirements are greater than ever and increasingly they are being spatially expressed.  Forestry’s initial flirtation with GIS technology in the 1980s was sparked by a focus on economic gains but was overshadowed in the 1990s by stewardship applications.  Today, environmental compliance for a harvest block involves watershed-wide mapping and map analysis that assesses the impacts before a single tree is cut.  Furthermore, wood products must receive certification of coming from lands managed under a sustained forest plan before a board is sold at Home Depot—external pressure from the marketplace as well as regulation.


The trajectory of the factors affecting GIS on the farm suggests an increasing influence of GIS technology.  The ultimate form of agriculture’s expression awaits evolution but given that the long run crystal ball is a bit hazy, we are we now in precision farming?


Figure 2.  The status of GIS applications varies from operational to in-process to visionary.


Three agronomic applications are well underway—yield mapping, soil nutrient mapping and management zone mapping. 


Yield mapping within a decade has evolved from an idea to operational reality.  However, two important refinements are pending—monitor type and lag time adjustment.  Current monitors are designed for measuring “quantity” yet concern for mapping “quality” is rising.  Software advances for correcting harvester’s lag time involved in moving material from the cutting-head to the monitor should greatly improve the positional accuracy of yield maps.


Soil nutrient mapping is based on established procedures in spatial statistics.  What remains is validation of the procedures in this application and discovery of appropriate algorithms and sampling designs.  Also, the assumption of spatial variability in nutrients needs to be investigated in three dimensions—soil profile samples as well as whole-core samples. 


Management zone mapping seeks to subdivide a field into parts that are similar to each other but different among groupings.  The idea is that the partitions better respond to tailored management decisions, such as fertilization rates, than to whole-field averages.  Early attempts based the delineations on manual interpretation of aerial imagery and farmer experience alone.  Current approaches using well-established “data clustering” procedures meld additional data layers and bring spatial statistics into the picture.  What waits is validation of the zones produced and discovery of which map sets and procedures are best.


Yield, soil nutrient and management zone mapping are near term endeavors that should move precision farming from the innovators to the majority… provided education, economics and enlightenment warrant the move.  The environment factor redirects GIS from a crop productivity focus to one of stewardship communication and compliance.


The bigger picture of the full precision farming process will take longer to play out.  The equipment and procedures for the descriptive (where is what—sampling and monitors) and action (precisely here—variable rate implements) are near reality.  However, the prediction (so what and why—data analysis) and prescription (do what where--optimization) elements require considerable infusion of science.  By its very nature agricultural science takes time and sizeable number of growing seasons. 


While sufficient in the near term, the current science base is non-spatial and too aggregated to realize precision farming’s full potential.  The spatial variability within a field, among farms and across regions is large and complex.  The structure of agricultural research will have to change to refocus from considering average field conditions to mapping variations and recommendations.  Since each farm represents a unique combination of spatial patterns (micro-terrain, soil texture, soil nutrients, weeds, pests, etc.) on-farm studies will become increasingly important. 


GIS technology will serve as the engine for collecting, storing and analyzing the new round data.  Chances are tomorrow’s farm will be valued for its information base, as well as its productivity base—a reality spawned by agriculture’s part of the information-age.