Recently I have been reading about and seeing articles and advertisements about new technologies and equipment that are being introduced to the ag community. This got me to ruminating on modern agricultural practices and where we are heading.

In January 2021, according to the International Society of Precision Agriculture, the definition of precision agriculture was “a management strategy that gathers, processes and analyzes temporal, spatial and individual data and combines them with other information to support management decisions according to estimated variability for improved resource use efficiency, productivity, quality, profitability and sustainability of agricultural production.”

They continued that there are three major components – information, technology and management – which are integrated to optimize production. I agree that pursuing production optimization is a lofty and noble goal – one that will hopefully increase the monetary return to the grower adopting these practices.

I wondered, as I looked at all these new technologies, if they were indeed a part of this subject that we call “precision agriculture.” If the new buzz word is precision agriculture, I guess I grew up in the not-so-precision agriculture age … or old agriculture … or maybe it was just agriculture that lacked the bells and whistles we see today.

When I first heard about precision agriculture years ago, I envisioned it being adopted by large agronomic crop growers of wheat, soybeans and corn and maybe not so much by smaller horticultural operations (although I could see some of the larger vegetable operations fitting into this practice). My earliest perception was based on what I read or lectures that I attended.

I remember it was pointed out that we had a lot of variability in our fields and generally we applied fertilizer and other inputs on a generalized basis to hit an average across the field. When precision ag came along, we began to gather much more detailed information about the fields and divided them into smaller pieces. Given the ability to process/integrate much more information along with knowing our precise location using global positioning satellites (GPS), with the new machinery that was developed during this time period we could deliver variable amounts of inputs, such as lime and fertilizer, and hopefully increase our efficiency and productivity. I believe this was the first big step into precision agriculture.

Thus, we see that information is one of the cornerstones of precision agriculture. If you think about the future direction of agriculture, I can envision much more sophisticated information being gathered and processed. Every day we have new instrumentation coming out that generates a lot of information on many aspects of farming: detailed, localized weather data; field configurations and mapping that can denote not only changes is soil types but wet and dry spots that will affect field preparation, liming and fertilization; water management; pest management; harvesting; and a continuum right to the store shelf.

The old saying when talking about computers – “garbage in/garbage out” – is certainly true when it comes to information collection. This means that the instrumentation collecting the data needs to be calibrated properly and checked for its accuracy. As this is the basis upon which management decisions will be made, it’s important that the information is solid.

Technology is another cornerstone of precision agriculture, and I can see that this is exploding. Pick up any ag magazine and look at the articles and advertisements. The drone technology that didn’t even exist in agriculture several years ago is being used to map and define fields, detect problems with stands, identify disease and insect issues in a field and apply sprays for spot control of insects and diseases. There are squadrons of small drones spraying fields.

Technology has moved to more precision planters/transplanters and the future could see self-guided units based on GPS. (I guess I will really be the poster child for old-timey agriculture sitting on my Allis-Chalmers G tractor with a gang of Planter Jr.’s planting a field.) We see a whole new line of precision weeders that could be self-propelled, right beside the squadron of drones as new precision applicators of pesticides, whether ground or aerial based.

In the realm of irrigation, we have much more sophisticated monitoring and application of water and fertilizers. I believe that we’ll see even more robotic harvesting aids to harvest horticultural crops as the sensors become more sensitive and accurate. Imagine a robotic machine going down a field of staked tomatoes gently picking tomatoes in the selected color range.

In horticultural crops, think about what has always been a problem – labor. The large agronomic growers can harvest with their big units and maybe they will be driverless, but they certainly will provide detailed yield data that are being recorded throughout the field and not just a final bushels/acre. This is an area where artificial intelligence can come into play and make tremendous strides in robotic harvesting.

On the farms of the future, we might need to employ technologists or engineers to keep the precision machinery up and running. Our offices will look like the command center in the military, with big screen monitors providing real-time data and information. I just hope that the driverless units do not have a malfunction, but I’m sure that the ag engineers will have built in safeguards and redundant systems.

Since I believe that precision agriculture will be used in horticultural operations and not just large agronomic farms, we come to management, the third cornerstone of precision ag. Management brings the human element into the decision-making that incorporates the myriad information generated by the technology that hopefully will improve the efficiency of the operation – or optimize production (quantity or quality) – and make a profit for the grower, regardless of the size of the operation.

Will very small acreage growers be able to participate in precision agriculture? I believe they can certainly utilize some of the components. The more useful information that can be generated and processed and made available to the growers will certainly make their decision-making and management that much easier. Being able to make good management decisions is a combination of having the appropriate information and being able to analyze it to make the correct decision or appropriate action.

Having experience in the trenches of “old agriculture” means a lot when it comes to making management decisions in precision agriculture. Having said all that, now I can say “Beam me up, Scottie!”

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