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New Agriculture Takes Root
By harvesting information technology, farmers are bringing digital precision to their fields.

Star Tribune
Section D1 & D8
Written By: 
Joy Powell, Star Tribune Staff Writer
Photos By: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune
October 6, 2002

Photo By:  Joey McLeister

Gary Wagner and Natasha study three computer screens in his home office. The left screen shows data from his own weather station. The center screen shows data gathered from Geographical Information System software about the land. The right screen is Wagner’s personal computer.

Gary Wagner’s combine rolled over a dying patch of Canada thistle, the purple-flowered weed that farmers fight.

Reaching to his right, Wagner tapped a button on a small computer linking him to the global positioning system (GPS). That tap recorded the precise location of the thistle patch in his Red River Valley navy bean field.

Next spring, he’ll use that information when his computer-generated maps guide him in spraying herbicide. For six years, Wagner has been using GPS to map pattern of crabgrass, wild oats or the fast spreading thistle.

That’s just one of the ways this Crookston farmer is using technology to increase profits while reducing chemicals that can leach into the environment.

Ryan Roggenbuck, a University of Minnesota graduate student, has a global positioning system unit strapped to his back as he and Prof. Pierre Robert take sampls from a university cornfield. Robert is considered worldwide to be the father of precision agriculture.

Wagner and others, such as scientist Pierre Robert of the University of Minnesota, are at the forefront of a new era in farming that is changing the way the world grows food.  For centuries farmers used a pinch of soil, a keen eye and their memory of the land.  Today’s farmers are turning to lasers, digital technology and satellite images to better manage crops.

“It’s farming with knowledge,” Wagner said.  “It’s making better management decisions based on data collected over a period of years.”

Wagner and a growing number of farmers are treating yards of earth individually to grow healthier plants, rather than using the traditional one-size-fits all approach to their fields.

Thanks to the detailed records being kept by farmers, consumers will be able to find out exactly what kind of seed, fertilizer, pesticides an other methods were used to produce their food, Robert and Wagner said.  The technology could even be used to detect man-made outbreaks of crop disease, a growing concern since Sept. 11, 2001.

The new agriculture was born in Minnesota more than 20 years ago when Control Data and other companies began developing the technology.  In 1993, Wagner and other tech-savvy farmers in the Red River Valley were among the first to use what’s called precision agriculture. The practice was slow to catch on until the past few years, when the market exploded.

Information helps farmers make best use of their land

Robert, an international expert on precision agriculture, describes the new natural resource management as a “revolution” that is launching farming into the digital age as more precise information technologies evolve.

Robert directs the University’s Precision Agriculture Center in St. Paul, which was the first of its kind when it was founded in 1995, according to Charles Muscoplat, dean of Minnesota’s College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.

The goal of precision agriculture, Muscoplat said, is to help farmers gain more value per acre while “leaving a lighter footprint on the earth.”

Wagner combine

Wagner’s combine is equipped with a computer and satellite receiver, which link him to the government’s global positioning system.  Above, he records the latitude and longitude of a weedy patch in his navy bean field near Crookston.

High-tech harvest
On a clear harvest day last month, as Wagner rolled his bright green combine through his bean field, satellite signals beamed down to a bowl-sized GPS receiver atop his cab.

Those signals were broadcast by four to eight of the 24 satellites belonging to the U.S. Department of Defense that circle the Earth at any given time. With their precise atomic clocks, the satellites pinpointed the position of Wagner’s combine every few seconds.

“Every square foot on Earth has a ZIP code tied to a longitude and latitude,” Wagner said above the hum of his $250,000 combine. "The satellites are giving us the position where we are right now."

Sensors on his combine measured the flow of beans he was harvesting as well as their moisture content. A digital readout on his foot-long yield monitor box in his cab displayed on-the-go numbers.

He watched the monitor as the combine rumbled over a damaged part of his field, where heavy June rains had left standing water and paltry bean plants. 

Gary Wagner combines a field of navy beans where growth is sparse.  Rainwater pooled in this section for days earlier in the growing season.

An auger within the combine spit out the white beans, hulled from their chaff, at a rate of 1,700 pounds per acre, the yield monitor showed. Overall, the field was averaging 2,500 pounds per acre. Wagner immediately knew that he'd lost about $50 an acre there. He drove to another field and eyed navy bean plants that looked too green. "Hope this stuff is dry enough to take out," he said. "We'll find out."

But the yield monitor showed the kernels'; water content was 24 percent -- six percent above the moisture levels accepted by the local grain elevator. Beans with a high moisture content can rot. Wagner was forced to delay harvesting his last 17 acres of navy beans until they ripened.

Before the new technology, he would have climbed off his tractor and taken questionable beans to elevators in Grand Forks or Crookston for analysis. With today's technology, he learns moisture content on the spot.

Better management of information is helping farmers decide on the best possible use of their land as well as on seed varieties, drainage, fertilizer, fungicides and insect control.

"The combine with all the technology is not just a combine anymore," said Mark Vanacht, president of Ag Business Consultants of St. Louis, Mo. "It is an information appliance, a computer on wheels. All that information that the combine will collect will become the basis for your management decisions in the future."

Gary Wagner installs a data logger in a tractor that he is using for the sugar-beet harvest. The data logger gathers information from sensors on the tractor. The data will be used to make maps to be studied to help improve yields.

Long-term payback
There’s no quick payback for much of this technology, which requires a few seasons before the farmer builds a reliable base of information.

And for some farmers, it wouldn’t pay. If, for example, a field is fairly uniform with no variability in nutrient conditions, there’s no need to vary rates of fertilizer application.

But for Wagner, the high-tech field practices are paying off big time. He figures that in the past two years, he applied $54,000 less in pesticide on 6,000 acres that he and his two brothers farm.

Precision agriculture has been most widely adopted for use on large corn and soybean farms in the Midwest, said Stan Daberkow of the USDA’s Economic Research Service. In southwest Minnesota, where corn and soybeans are top crops, half of the farmers use yield monitors, according to a recent survey.

Wagner estimates that one out of three of the state’s sugarbeet farmers use technology to vary rates of fertilizer within their fields.

He serves on the Research and Education Board of American Crystal Sugar Co., a Red River Valley cooperative that buys satellite images and distributes them to sugarbeet farmers to increase productivity.

The images indicate plant health and disease potential. They measure the density of plant leaves with a band of light not visible to the naked eye. The denser the leaf, the more light reflected and the less fertilizer needed.

Last year, Precision Partners, a consulting company that works with farmers and retailers, teamed up with American Crystal Sugar to help farmers save an average of $11 an acre by using less nitrogen fertilizer. In doing so, the program also helped remove 2,000 tons of nitrate from the Red River Valley drainage system, the company said.

"What we’re trying to do with precision agriculture," said Don Lamker, training manager for Precision Partners, "is improve the overall profitability of farmers."

The new agriculture, along with bio-tech crops, is taking root as farmers face increased competition from international markets. Profit margins are tight, making efficiency crucial. Farms are getting bigger and growers are turning to larger equipment, which gives them less time for up-close viewing of their land.

"At one time," Wagner said, "farmers used to drive up and down the fields, just observing over time the good and poor parts of the fields. Now we can increase our vision with satellite images and aerial photos."

Precision agriculture students Nicholas Smeby and Kyle Smith, foreground, study their computer screens at the University of Minnesota Crookston. In the background, students Nathan Harris and Jim Wittkop work out a problem with instructor Gary Wagner.

The precision generation
The two agriculture aviation students sat together in a classroom at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, their laptop screens glowing. They and a dozen other students are taking a precision ag class taught by Wagner and assistant professor Aziz Rahman.

This campus offers a four-year agriculture degree with an emphasis in precision agriculture and shares an exchange program with a Brazilian university that also teaches the new discipline.

Nathan Harris, 20, and Jim Wittkop, 23, tapped their laptops, calling up colorful maps. They followed Wagner as he demonstrated, step by step, how to establish a geographic information system (GIS). Farmers use them to set up field boundaries and enter layers of information -- such as drainage ditches and soil types -- as they build a database.

Wittkop, whose hometown is Hugo, works for a rural Crookston farmer who uses yield monitors and GPS in his combine and lasers to determine topography.

Harris and Wittkop are convinced that precision agriculture represents the future of farming.

"It provides you with the information to make well-informed decisions on what to plant," Wittkop said. "You can micromanage your fields instead of just throwing a high rate of fertilizer on the whole field."

The pilots said they plan to use GPS for crop-dusting.

"I can make one pass, and the GPS will show where I’ve gone and where I need to to apply it," said Harris, whose family lives on a livestock farm in Columbia, Mo.

"It keeps it [the chemical spray] from drifting into lakes, rivers, people’s yards -- where it shouldn’t be," Wittkop added.

Experts say this younger generation of computer-literate farmers and agriculture consultants is most likely to adapt the new practices and persuade their parents and older customers to embrace them.

At Crookston, each student is paired with a farmer to give the students practical experience and help farmers learn precision agriculture, Rahman said.

In addition, Wagner, Rahman and Roberts work with groups of Minnesota farmers to help them sort through and apply the new technology.

"In the past, farmers have seen many kinds of changes in machinery, and in varieties of seed, but they’ve never seen anything like this," Rahman said. "This use of computers, use of GPS, use of GIS, is more complicated than anything they’ve done in the past. It’s the educators’ jobs to help farmers understand this."

Gathering data is the first step, but interpreting findings and applying them to practical uses is the difficult next step.

But the word is spreading. Last July, about 600 farmers, researchers, consultants and others traveled from 30 countries to Bloomington for the sixth annual international conference on precision agriculture.

Robert, a premier researcher of the site-specific agriculture, organizes the annual conferences.

The conference has attracted small and large companies alike. Among the 32 exhibitors was Cargill Crop Nutrition, which unveiled a new fertilizer management program that uses computers and GPS. Minnetonka-based Cargill, the nation’s largest agribusiness, has been a leader in bringing precision technology to the farm.

One of the big hits of the conference came from a much smaller company. It’s a new chemical spray applicator called the GreenSeeker, developed by NTech Industries Inc. of California and Oklahoma State University.

Rather than GPS, it uses optical sensors with infrared and near-infrared light to measure the nutrient needs of plants about every 2 feet. A sprayer then can apply fertilizer at seven different rates as the combine moves through the field.

"We’re letting the plant talk to us," said NTech President Ted Mayfield. "We are taking the vital signs of the plant, issuing a prescription and administering it on the fly."

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