For many farmers, precision farming is nothing new. Using past experience to enhance yields through applying inputs, such as fertilizer and water, in a precise way, is just good business sense. It also helps to reduce costs and minimize waste. But the tools now available to farmers are reaching new heights and now largely involve collecting, translating and analyzing vast amounts of data to help farmers make these daily decisions.
“We’ve been farming at this site for over 100 years as the fourth generation of the family and the business. And all our knowledge and understanding until now has been word of mouth,” said Sky Johnson, sales and marketing at Borton Fruit, the Washington State-based producer. “Now we have to implement new technology to collect information in digital snapshots to allow for knowledge transfer as we transition into the fifth generation.”
Top of mind for Johnson right now is meeting consumer demands for traceable, safe, and environmentally-friendly food for Johnson, and he thinks that precision agriculture tools can help with the data collection aspect of this. “We are trying to prepare ourselves for more transparency and any changes that might come with the Food Safety Modernization Act. So why not capture information that’s of internal and operational benefit, but that can also help consumers have a more emotional connection with farming?”
In an effort to support the development of precision agriculture tools, Borton Fruit has taken part in a range of different technology trials on its farms. This has included testing the use of drones as a monitoring and detection technology for issues such as rainwater damage mitigation, Johnson told AgFunderNews.
Drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) have been a major piece of hardware in the precision agriculture revolution to date, and there has been much hype about their game-changing potential for the industry.
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Drones were a primary focus for the first year of the Precision Farming Expo in 2013 where several drones companies attended and presented, according to Jeff Lorton, executive producer of the event. Now in its third year, The Precision Farming Expo is an industry event for farmers, researchers, state-run agriculture bodies, agronomists, machinery companies, local economic development officers, and a range of other stakeholders, and will this year be held in Washington State.
However, a shift in focus is happening. Lorton tells AgFunderNews in his video below that this year those same drones companies are more focused on the data element of what they’re doing. And it’s the same for sensing equipment companies.
Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest, a precision agriculture technology provider, and consultant, which initially focused purely on drones, has also taken a different path in recent times.
“We started out with a drones focus in 2008, but now they are just one component of what we do,” he told AgFunderNews. “We have transitioned to solving very specific problems for growers and bringing the technology needed to help solve them.”
“It’s probably because we’ve been using UAVs for so long that we recognize they have their limitations, and I think other companies will come to a similar conclusion.”
So what are the limitations for drones? In a nutshell, they include the need for many people to deploy them, the limited insight of imagery taken by a drone over many seasons, the regulations limiting their use, and the inability to transfer the huge amounts of imaging data that would be needed for real-time use.
“When you first see drones images it’s novel. But when you compare two seasons unless something unique has happened, the variability is very similar,” said Kim. “By season three, growers, being practical as they should be, start to question the value of additional aerial image captures, which have diminishing value over several seasons.”
So what direction has Digital Harvest gone in? The company is using satellite imagery for monitoring; drones or manned aircraft for detecting a specific condition; and then an aerial robotic helicopter to do precision spraying.
“If you’re going to serve the grower, they want you to bring a solution to them, not a specific technology,” he said. “Agriculture is not a singular thing, they have agronomic issues that need a multidisciplinary approach. If you look at all tech industries, they started singular and then morphed into a total solution. I hope I am not the only one bringing the holistic approach.”
Both Johnson and Kim will be speaking at the Precision Farming Expo, which will feature the latest developments in data, remote sensing, UAVs and more from companies including Yamaha Motor Corp, Aerial Technologies International, Agrian, DN2K, Digital Harvest, MicaSense and more.
Watch Jeff Lorton, executive producer of the Expo, tell us more about the changing precision agriculture landscape.
Precision Farming Expo will be held in Kinnewick, Washington, on January 7 – 8. You can find more information here.
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