Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Union-Bulletin on April 3, 2016.
The slipup in the soybean field would have been costlier in a different time and place.
Mike Hagerman was planting a crop last year (in 2015), using GPS navigational technology on his tractor, when he realized he’d failed to engage the auto-steer mechanism.
The error still cost him time. But in what has become a more intuitive field, Hagerman was not only able to calculate exactly how much time he need to make up based on acreage and speed, he was also able to text his wife from the seat of the tractor and let her know how late he would be getting home.
Precision agriculture may not ever eliminate human error. But it can mitigate it. It also provides a way to work with the wrenches thrown by Mother Nature.
In a high-stakes industry, where commodity prices fluctuate and conditions are impossible to control, the integration of sophisticated technology on the farm is increasingly employed to improve the quality of crops and yield, and reduce — or at least streamline — expenses.
“When decisions are made that can really have some resonating effects on income, they are buffering that by applying or having to purchase less seed, less chemicals and things like that because of the data that they have,” Hagerman said.
Picture a field like a quilt made up of different patches, said Hagerman, who is also an agriculture instructor at Walla Walla Community College where precision ag classes were introduced last fall. The patches vary — different soil types, different needs, different output. Based on their composition, each may get a different prescription of sorts for combinations of fertilizer and chemicals. Those can be programmed into the sprayers and then navigated in careful rows through GPS-operated equipment that eliminates overspray.
The technology is growing more popular. A study and forecast issued in late March by Research and Markets, “Global Precision Agriculture Market — Analysis & Forecast, 2016 to 2022,” projected the market for global precision agriculture to reach $7.6 billion by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.7 percent. That includes a combination of the hardware — GPS, sensors, cameras, digital displays and more — and management systems and services that go with it.
Hagerman said there are other positive effects besides a better potential yield. With technological assistance, farming can be less exhausting in the field, he said. It also has the potential to bridge a major generation gap between farmers who average in age around 55 or 60, and younger potential employees who may be inexperienced in crops and fields but know everything about software and troubleshooting.
“That’s actually one of the most exciting aspects of this industry to me,” said Hagerman, 32. “It’s really giving an avenue for entering into agriculture for those that are more technically minded. That 18-year-old or that youngster on the farm is becoming a huge asset to those older farmers.”
He uses himself as an example.
“As a young person that did grow up around agriculture, I was looked at for a long time as the least experienced,” he said. “I’m still the youngest person that works on our farm, but there are times I’m the only person that can do a particular job.”
The technological part of the job wasn’t necessarily a major focus for Sadie Drury when she trained at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology & Viticulture. But it was something she learned quickly as an intern at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard.
As vineyard manager for Seven Hills Vineyard and SeVein, she relies on a bevy of devices to help gauge everything from the most optimum time of day to water the grapes in the heat of summer to determining sap flow as water moves laterally through the vines.
She monitors charts on her computer that help her verify that what she’s seeing in the vineyard matches what’s showing up through sensors.
Twelve vineyards are planted at the Milton-Freewater property, and she manages seven of those, selling grapes by the acre to 45 different wineries, including some of the most renowned wineries in the Walla Walla Valley.
Irrigation is essentially the most important component to ensuring ideal berry size.
“You can’t overwater or underwater grapes,” Drury said. “I’d have a lot of angry winemakers.”
The technological tools are a must in the vineyard, but they go hand in hand with a pair of eyes scanning the leaves and assessing the grapes, she said.
“If you’re depending on anything taking you out of the field, you don’t have eyes,” she said. “I never use one single platform to make a decision.”
Drury works in tandem with Larry Wondra, the Water Association manager for SeVein.
Wondra’s day begins at 5:30 a.m., which is about when he starts receiving calls, text messages and alarms through the association.
With 2,700 acres to oversee, the association has about 18 different sites operated through wireless communication.
Wondra uses software to start and stop wells, divert water to ponds and control pump speed, pressure and flow, among other things. Constant data-logging provides records for reference.
All of this is a glossy and unsophisticated description of the painstakingly detail-oriented work for which he is available on call around the clock. If a valve didn’t get shut off properly the night before, Wondra will know and figure out how to respond.
“I don’t dare leave my phone or my iPad very far in the distance.”
His busiest spell in the day is between about 5:30 and 10 a.m., minus the occasional emergency in the night. Thank goodness, though, for tablets. When a laptop was the prevailing mobile computer device, it was difficult to cart around everywhere he went.
“Once we switched to iPads, I could go out to dinner,” he said.
Meanwhile, wheat farmer Jason Hair of J Hair Farms quips he uses down time on the GPS-guided tractor catch up on his reading.
In the fourth year of no-till farming on several thousand acres past Clyde, he said he’s actually more likely to be using the free time to monitor the weed population.
Weeds are one of the biggest battles. Some of the grasses are so genetically similar to wheat it gets trickier to abate the problem. But with chemical and sprayer advancements, he can shoot for the weeds and not kill the wheat or have to reseed.
The technology is not cheap. The upfront investments on what are already half-a-million-dollar pieces of equipment may be more financially feasible for the larger operators, he said.
But the accuracy buys something practically priceless in the field: time.
“The sprayers are wider and faster. We can get more acres in a day than we used to,” Hair said.
That changes the way he assesses weather conditions for spraying.
“We used to have to spray in marginal conditions just to get over the ground,” he explained. This allows us to skip a marginal day. We only get one chance to make these certain chemicals work on our wheat.”
Like other farmers, Hair uses apps and software to collect the data. The maps of his farmland show use of the slopes, soil types, regions in the field and various zones. He doesn’t spend less on fertilizer or use less, but he uses it differently: more in better areas and less where the land is generally less productive anyway.
The costs, he said, balance in various ways. He burns less diesel, but his chemical bills are higher with his type of farming. Nevertheless, he can fertilize and add micronutrients to the seeds all in one pass.
As he explores the no-till philosophy further, the data should help sharpen yields as the technology becomes more common, he said.
“We’re going to get better using it.”