High-Tech Farming for Affordable, Sustainable Food

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Agriculture and technology both drive Washington’s economy. Agriculture contributes more than $51 billion to the state’s economy. Now, advances in technology help farmers improve our state’s food production systems, so high-tech farming means more people have access to affordable food and farming has less impact on our environment.

Farming today looks far different than it did 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Ride along in a tractor on a typical Washington wheat farm and you’ll find yourself surrounded by technology, with three or four computer screens providing field data, satellite imagery and GPS guidance. Coupled with advanced sensors and applicators and steering automation, these technologies converge to help farmers manage their fields with precision so they can grow more food, more affordably, with less impact on our environment.

AgTech’s Impact

Depending on the crop, farms can span hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres with variable terrain and growing conditions. New technological advancements help farmers grow crops in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, accounting precisely for variations in soil type, soil nutrients, sun exposure, terrain and water. This allows them to ensure they’re applying what we refer to as inputs, including water, fertilizers and pest and weed control, only where crops need it and only in the quantities necessary to produce the best crops possible. This reduces chemicals added to our environment and conserves water.

By controlling inputs, farmers can reduce costs associated with bringing foods from the field to the table. Reduced production costs mean less expense for consumers in the marketplace. Site-specific data also allows farmers to select plants that will thrive under specific conditions, and to respond appropriately to plants in distress. This increases productivity and allows farmers to produce more food per acre.

Technology in Action

GPS Yield and Soil Monitors for Field Mapping Using sensors and sampling in conjunction with GPS, farmers can create precise field maps, permitting site-specific management. It tells them exactly how well crops grow at specific sites and where they need to look closer to address problems, such as too much or too little water or diminished soil fertility. According to Dana Herron, a wheat farmer in Connell, WA, these technologies provide data a farmer just can’t acquire from hours walking and evaluating a fields. In fact, according to a study from the USDA Economic Research Service, GPS soil and yield mapping can reduce labor costs by 35%.

GPS Autosteering and Variable-Rate Input Application Technologies (VRT) GPS auto-steer technologies are used in more than 50 percent of farmed acres, permitting such precision that farmers can ensure application of fertilizer, pest and weed control and seeding to within an inch of overlap. Based on field mapping, on-board computers can be precisely controlled so fertilizer and pest and weed control is applied only where it’s needed. This reduces the chemicals applied to crops and put into the environment and reduces planting costs. “It also means we use less fuel and we have a smaller carbon footprint,” says Herron. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, VRT can reduce labor costs by 28 percent. A study from Purdue University predicts the use of VRT will climb to 64 percent by 2018.

Mobile Applications Smart phone apps have become ubiquitous in daily life. Now they help farmers make smart decisions to conserve resources. “The goal is water conservation. We want more bang for the water we do use. We want more crop per drop,” says Troy Peterson, of WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems. He developed one application that allows farmers in Washington and 10 other states to precisely manage how much and when they water crops. “It keeps more water in our streams and keeps our water clean,” he says. Other apps help manage harvest, track productivity, and apply data from drones to evaluate the health of crops.

Drones and Aerial Imagery Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) entered the field several years ago, but their value to farming is still being developed. Aerial imagery provides data and insight that could never be acquired by walking the field. Using multispectral and thermal imaging, UAVs can identify different types of stress in crops at specific locations, allowing farmers to respond precisely where and how it’s needed. According to Cody Hodge of Washington Tractor, “this technology gives farmers a lot of data and saves a lot of money.” Drones can be used at a fraction of the price as hiring a plane to do the same job. “It can be used more frequently so you can catch problems throughout the growing season,” Hodge adds. Drones can also be used to help dry off cherry crops and to scare away birds that damage crops. The agriculture drone industry is expected to grow more than 28% by 2021, according to a recent study from Zion Market Research.

Harvest Automation New harvest machinery and technology, such as automated picking platforms and high-volume bin transport systems, reduces fuel consumption, improves productivity, reduces costs and increases picker safety in the field.