Farmers face many different challenges to meet the food demands of the current population: climate change, the increasing costs of agricultural supplies and implements, and the public clamor to find less wasteful ways to grow produce. To answer these, many farmers turn to precision farming, a principle that uses information technology to aid decision making throughout the crop production process. This method allows growers to improve the efficiency of applying inputs like water and fertilizer, increase yields, and minimize runoff and waste.
Despite its many long-term advantages, the adoption rate of precision farming is still below expectations. The process of making a farm more efficient presents plenty of hurdles that growers and other proponents of precision agriculture should overcome. Some of the most pressing issues are:
Gathering site-specific data is one of the most integral steps in adopting precision agriculture. This is typically carried out with the use of sophisticated technologies like stationary sensors, which need to be left in a predetermined location to collect data. In order to monitor their fields in real time, farmers have to invest on this type of hardware and set up the system that will collect the data around their farm.
The good news is that there are methods to regularly gather data without needing to allot a large capital on stationary sensors. The use of mobile sensors, or sensors that are attached to vehicles which move around the different sectors of the field, can help growers avert the added cost of buying multiple sensors and laying out the system. At the same time, growers have the option of using agricultural services from companies that have their own set of technologies to survey the land with. Ceres Imaging, a California-based agricultural aerial imagery company, for example, offers subscription plans paid by the acre, per image on a weekly, monthly, or custom basis. This service lets farmers get regular updates on the health and condition of their crops without paying upfront costs or investing in costly hardware or software.
The wide use of Global Positioning System or GPS is one of the cornerstones of site-specific farm management. In fact, precision farming is also known as satellite farming because of its deep connection to this technology. Still, poor GPS signal reception continues to be a problem in farms with hilly terrains or places that have densely forested areas and lots of tall trees.Poor network performance and slow bandwidth, particularly in extremely rural areas in the US, can also get in the way of constant data transfer and response from the interconnected sensor systems in the fields.
Recently, however, sensor suppliers and agricultural startups are finding ways around connectivity problems by turning to low power wide area networks or LPWANs. In places where cellular data is spotty at best, LPWANs are used to transmit data intermittently over long ranges. Coupled with its low energy consumption and low cost of ownership, this dependable data transfer system is proving to be an attractive option for many growers.
Interoperability among different tools and platforms remains a concern, especially now that there are a lot of available OEM agricultural tools geared towards smart farming.The inputs from these components and sensors often come in incompatible file formats and are generated at different times, which lead to a lack of uniformity in the final analysis of the data. At the same time, because these technologies do not follow the same standards, troubleshooting them can be quite frustrating for farmers and technicians alike.
There are, of course, ongoing efforts to address the lack of standardization. Since its formation about a decade ago, the Agricultural Industry Electronics Foundation has actively called for improved compatibility between components from different manufacturers. Today, the group is composed of more than 170 members, including companies and organizations that collaborate to make the standards work. The problem in this area is still a very real issue, but precision agriculture proponents are hoping that farmers will be able to simply plug-and-play components from different manufacturers in the near future.
Adopting precision farming certainly comes with its own set of challenges, particularly during the initial stages of developing the technology. However, since the system has proven itself as an effective method of improving yield, growers are seeing beyond these hurdles and are more eager to try out this method. Regardless if they choose to do this through investing on their own equipment or with the help of agricultural service providers, one thing is sure: farms of all sizes are bound to benefit from this farming method in the long run.