Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Promise of Precision Agriculture Is Slowly Coming to Fruition

From Undark, June 18:

Collecting granular data about farm operations promised a revolution. Improvements have come, but only incrementally.

For 20 years, Pablo Sobron sought a better way to learn exactly what was in the soil, rock, or any other substance on Mars.

Instead of sampling and laboratory analysis — the old way of soil testing — scientists began to use lasers and sensors to get high precision data quickly. Eventually, that led Sobron to think the same type of technology could work on Earth, particularly farms.

“The idea is to do exactly what we do on Mars, which is drive and, without stopping, get real time measurements of every square inch if you want to. As small as you want,” he said.

Impossible Sensing, the company Sobron founded in St. Louis, is now working on the second iteration of a prototype, designed to be mounted to the back of a planter. It will help farmers see exactly what’s happening in their soil in real time as they drive through their fields, revealing information about nutrient levels, soil health, water conditions, and other factors around individual plants.

“Our thinking is that having more precision on knowing what areas of the farm can take more or less [fertilizer] will allow them to apply what’s needed,” he said. “The real value and the real need here is to give insights, give knowledge; prescribe what to do and when.”

It’s what precision agriculture has promised since the 1990s — if growers get more granular data about their operations and the technology, they will put that newfound information to use for more efficient and sustainable farms.

Yet, Sobron admits all the new technology around precision ag has yet to fully transform farming. “It’s not delivering on the hype that it was sold,” Sobron said.

There have been many advancements over the years that have boosted precision. New tractors can use GPS to steer themselves and farmers now have the ability to change the rate at which they apply seeds or fertilizer on their fields. Even crop genetics and how weeds are managed have advanced.

“The only thing we have not advanced is the sensor,” he said. “The ability to see things that matter, in both the plants, the soil, and the roots.”

All of that data should help farmers make choices that will not only boost their bottom line, but curb the overuse of fertilizers and other chemicals and be more targeted about irrigation.

The federal government has an eye on more targeted fertilizer use, as well. Speaking in southern Illinois in May, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the farm bill proposed by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow supports research into new sensing technology.

“Many of our corn acres are being over fertilized,” he said. “As sensor technology gets more readily available, precision agriculture is an opportunity for us to really educate farmers.”

Vilsack said these kinds of sensors could help farmers reduce the overuse of fertilizer, which runs off of farms, polluting rivers, lakes, groundwater and even the Gulf of Mexico.

Attention from the federal government can entice many companies to focus on developing the technology, said Alison Doyle, associate director at the Iowa State University Research Park.

“Whatever the government becomes interested in, dumps federal money into, you’re going to see people innovating in those spaces,” she said. “Because there’s going to be money to drive behavior in that area.”

Sobron’s Impossible Sensing isn’t the only company looking to bring more precision, automation, or other technology to farming practices. Many bigger agriculture companies are also looking beyond seeds, fertilizer, and traditional farm equipment....