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FARM & RANCH: Farming Swaps Brawn for Brain

About 10,000 years ago the human race invented farming, which launched the agricultural revolution. It was a snail-paced revolution that crept rather than swarmed over the land, transforming society from foraging, fishing, hunting and herding cultures into what has ever since passed for civilization.

Changes in agricultural practices occurred at a glacial pace. In the hundred years before Americans fomented their political revolution, a revolution of another sort brewed a dramatic economic change, which we know as the industrial revolution.

The late industrial revolution brought mechanization and other technologies, which transformed American agriculture. For about 150 years, generation after generation of farm families sent their sons to town for brighter futures than the farm could offer.

Then, very quietly, the industrial age ended in the 1950s as white-collar and service workers outnumbered blue-collar workers for the first time. This ushered in the information age. We now live in its early stages and it is changing agriculture as much as it is changing other facets of society.

This new age is transforming farming from brawn work to brain work.

Purdue University professor Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer notes that industrial age farming involved mass production. It was pursued with mass-produced equipment with crop varieties developed for regional adoption. Management recommendations were of the “one-size-fits-all” model.

As in other fields, information is playing an increasingly important role in farming. Computer-based technology is not only making it possible for farmers to collect and use more data, it is creating an environment that demands that they do so.

Precision agriculture takes advantage of the fact that scientific knowledge is exploding and associated technologies are making information more plentiful and cheaper.

This is what precision agriculture is all about. Precision agriculture emerged in the last decade as a set of information-based technologies and management practices to improve crop productivity and quality, and to reduce environmental consequences.

Farmers always have known that crops don’t grow uniformly across fields. Sometimes there is great variability. Precision agriculture brings space-age technologies — computers and even satellites — to bear on farming. It allows farmers to develop data for small portions of fields and to alter management practices to maximize yield and quality, and to minimize negative influences on the environment.

Francis Pierce, a Michigan State University professor who studies precision agriculture, tells farmers, “The notion here is that the value of new technology is found not so much in the ability to do what you already could do better, but rather in doing things that could not be done with the old technology.”

Adoption of precision agriculture undoubtedly has been slowed by the hard times that most farmers have experienced for several years.

Adopting new technology costs. But it’s like that old “saw” about advertising. Good advertising doesn’t cost. It pays.

The problem is that farmers still have to make the investment. It’s also true that when adopting new technology, mistakes are made. There is a learning curve. Simplot Soilbuilders’ Curt Pengelly, Caldwell, Idaho, is heartened by how fast farmers are turning to precision agriculture, considering the economic crisis they are dealing with.

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