Every one of us likes to be treated as an individual. And it is no different for fields, say advocates of an expanding type of agriculture called precision farming.
This is based on research that shows there is a significant variation in how crops grow over distances as small as an acre, says Raj Khosla, an agriculture researcher at Colorado State University, and president of the International Society of Precision Agriculture.
He is helping farmers to harvest a new crop: data. They do it by bringing electronic tools into their crop rows - global positioning systems, infrared devices that measure soil’s electrical conductivity and light and sound sensors. Combining all that and more gives farmers precise information about variety in plant health, size and even nitrogen needs. The idea is that by collating all of this, farmers can produce highly detailed maps of their fields so that they can identify how much seed, fertilizer, water, herbicides and pesticides different areas require.
At first the appeal was that farmers would save money and avoid environmental harm by not adding unnecessary fertiliser or water, Khosla says. “But with precise input management, farmers can also influence grain yield and efficiency.”
Some academics and sustainable farming advocates see this type of farming as one more push toward industrialising food production and making more farmers dependent on agribusiness. But José Molin, a precision farming researcher at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, says the concept has promise for farmers with and without the means or inclination to buy expensive equipment.
“We still have to develop the concept to apply it to small farmers and to low tech or low income areas,” says Molin. “But the concept is always the same. Even small fields are different in different locations. We should treat them differently.”
Given the imperative to expand the world’s food supply, farmers need as much help as they can get, even down to the acre, says Khosla. “Previously we just raised food for humans and animals. In 2011 more corn went to biofuel than to feed for the first time in the US. Another big pressure is climate change. A third is the lack of water.” Khosla says. “We’re working under tremendous pressures today compared to those in the first green revolution. We can’t just continue to do things the way we have done them.”