To passersby, the fields of Colorado's eastern plains are a
vision of uniformity. Mile after mile of pinstripe rows of corn,
sugar beets, and onion stretch monotonously toward a hazy, green
To the farmers who tend these crops, however, the view is very
different. Looking down from their combines, growers like Elmer and
Larry Rothe see a diverse landscape: oases where sugar beets
flourish, islands where corn stalks are sparse.
For years, farmers like the Rothes have largely accepted these
variables, applying fertilizers, bug sprays, weed killers, and
water to make the whole field prosper.
Today, with the help of navigation satellites developed by the
military to guide fighter planes, the Rothes now apply fertilizer
strategically, where it's most needed.
"It looks real good, real even growth," says Elmer Rothe,
standing in a field of sugar beets. In most years, he says, the
field would be a patchwork of light and dark greens. This summer,
with precision doses of fertilizers, it's uniformly lush. "But come
back when it's time to harvest. Then we'll see."
As military satellites increasingly become open to public use,
farmers are able to draw detailed field maps that depict fertility,
aridity or soil-type of patches as small as 10 feet across.
When satellites are used in tandem with high-tech yield monitors
- which tally a crop as it rushes through the combine - farmers can
know exactly how much they're producing at any point along their
This practice is known as "precision" or "site-specific" farming
because it allows farmers to micromanage large acreages. According
to its proponents, this growing field promises a host of economic
and environmental boons.
By applying chemicals where they're most needed - and sparing
fertile, pest-free zones - farmers can increase yields and save
money, they say. Such strategic targeting may also reduce the
collateral damage associated with fertilizers such as nitrogen,
which leaches rapidly into the water table.
Perhaps more important, say boosters of precision, this new
technology arms farmers with accurate feedback on the condition and
output of their management practices.
"What we're really doing is transforming the farming arts into
farming sciences," says Rob Monson, president of Minnesota's
AgChem, which now makes chemical applicators that distribute
chemicals in precise doses as they rumble across the field.
By taking the guesswork out of farming, precision agriculture
stands to revolutionize food production, say proponents, who often
compare the advent of "information farming" to the invention of the
Still, even the most ardent enthusiasts admit much is still
unproved. "Right now, there's not enough raw data to be precise
about the results," says Pierre Robert, director of the Precision
Agriculture Center at the University of Minnesota. "It will take
some more years to get that data," Dr. Roberts adds. "But that's
OK. When farmers switched from horses to tractors it took years
before they really used the new tools efficiently."
Still many farm suppliers are not waiting for absolute proof
before leaping into what could be a multibillion-dollar industry. …