The Promise of Precision Agriculture Is Slowly Coming to Fruition

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.

“The real value and the real need here is to give insights, give knowledge; prescribe what to do and when.”

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.

“It’s not delivering on the hype that it was sold.”

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.

“There’s a trend right now, in agriculture, where a lot of the companies are positioning themselves more in the tech space than traditional ag,” Doyle said.

Labor is a critical driver — there aren’t as many people farming now than there were in the past, she said. And today’s farms are orders of magnitude bigger than the few hundred acres they were when her grandfather was a farmer, Doyle added.

“When you have an operation that large, where commodity prices and all the input prices are where they are, you’re looking for a tiny little bit of margin wherever you can find it,” she said. “And so these precision tools become necessary.”

But however promising new precision tools, like Sobron’s laser sensor or geospatial data from drones or satellites, are, it’ll likely take years for them to be adopted on thousands, let alone millions of farming acres.

“Experimentation is a risk,” said Bill Leigh, who farms about 2,200 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother in Marshall County, Illinois.

Since he started in the early 1980s, Leigh said he has introduced more precision tools to his arsenal of equipment, which have helped him more efficiently plant seeds or apply fertilizer, herbicides, and fungicides.

“There’s a trend right now, in agriculture, where a lot of the companies are positioning themselves more in the tech space than traditional ag.”

But this change has been gradual, he explained.

“It’s not a jump in with both feet, it’s a process,” Leigh said. “It’s just too expensive and there’s too much at risk to take that flying leap and realize there’s not a high jump pit at the end, it’s a piece of concrete.”

With new technology, or even just a different farming management practice, Leigh said he wants to be sure he knows how it’s going to work on his farmland. It helps to interface with someone else who may have some experience with it, he added.

“If not, you better do it on a small level because you don’t want to belly flop it,” Leigh said. “You might do that for one year and survive but the second year might get real hard.”

This is the economic imperative at the core of bringing new technology to farms: Growers like Leigh must see a clear financial return to continue to justify investing in something new or expanding it across more of their acreage.

“There’s all kinds of ways to spend money,” he said.

It will likely take years for new precision tools to be adopted on thousands, let alone millions of farming acres.

The precision tool of drone imagery is a good example. Drones can reveal if a crop is stressed or facing other issues that aren’t visible from the side of the road, said Jonathan Aguilar, an irrigation engineer and associate professor with Kansas State University.

“Some farmers have tried drones before and the way they saw it was, ‘It’s just another pretty picture,’” he said. “We are trying to make sure those pictures are actually information that they could make action out of.”

Sobron agrees. “Data that is not actionable is just data,” he said. “And we have too much data already.”

There’s also the fundamental challenge of farming’s seasonality. It takes months, if not a full growing season to understand how a new piece of technology performed, said BioSTL Agrifood Director Chad Zimmerman.

“You’ve got about 40 seasons in a working lifetime where you’re gonna try something new [and still] make a profit for your family,” he said. “That’s very few seasons if you think about it that way.”

Zimmerman argues it’s unfair to expect farmers to be the only ones to bear the financial uncertainty that can come with changing their practices for the benefit of the environment.

“These are still individuals’ businesses, it’s their way of life,” he said. “We can’t be asking them to take on more risk, to just take a decrease in their profit to accomplish somebody else’s goal.”

New agricultural technology can help farmers grow more food with less fertilizer and chemical inputs, but it won’t fully deliver the cost and environmental benefits until scaled across the millions of acres.

That puts pressure on companies big and small to prove their precision ag technology really works, Sobron said.

“It’s on the John Deeres, on us to create that value and show it,” he said. “Only when it’s shown, and it’s reliable and demonstrable, farmers will pick it up en masse.”

Sobron added that he expects this will happen with his sensor in just a few years.

Eric Schmid reports for St. Louis Public Radio.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. Republish stories like this one for free.