Technology Helps Farmers Target and Reduce Chemicals Farmers Reduce Pollution with Two Approaches to Agriculture; One Uses Navigation Satellites, the Other Stresses Chemical-Free Practices

By Malcolm Howard, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 19, 1996 | Go to article overview

Technology Helps Farmers Target and Reduce Chemicals Farmers Reduce Pollution with Two Approaches to Agriculture; One Uses Navigation Satellites, the Other Stresses Chemical-Free Practices


Malcolm Howard, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 horizon.

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 rows. 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 tractor. 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. …

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