Thursday, March 19, 2009

Farm Tech

Actual photo used by Robert Blair taken from a drone aircraft above his farm.
Farm Rules and Regs Struggle to keep up with Technology

Kendrick—Farm innovator Robert Blair got tired of wasting money on his Nez Perce county farm. His logic was simple: why pay thousands to fertilize 500 acres when just 10 acres need it?

Blair went to work not realizing that the solution to his problem was not in his fields, but the skies above.

One day surfing the internet he stumbled upon a catchy website that preached Precision Agriculture, and at first glance he was a convert to the concept.

Precision agriculture is the concept of doing the right thing, in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. It requires using new technologies, like global positioning devices, aerial photos, and information management software to assess and understand gathered farm data.

“We get a 10-percent increase in productivity just from the timing of an application; the proper placement can keep crops from drying up. So committing to these practices we’re spending less and producing more—we’ve seen as much as 10 percent, that’s huge,” said Blair.

But the concept is so new and precision practices growing so fast that it’s dragging in many states because rules and regulations haven’t caught up with new farming practices.

For instance Blair uses an unmanned, 10-pound, drone aircraft to photograph his fields from above. The aircraft is equipped with a high-resolution camera mounted in the belly of the aircraft and flies a pre-programmed flight pattern over his fields. The plane covers 640 acres in just 25 minutes and snaps hundreds of photos. Blair stitches the images together into a large, seamless mosaic that gives the high-tech farmer an understanding of what’s happening in the field in real time.

Blair says it’s hard to put a price tag on the value of this information, a single photograph could save an entire crop or tens of thousands of dollars or the environment of un-needed application chemical applications.

As good as this information technology sounds, Blair says drones concern the Federal Aviation Administration and they have plenty of questions, should farmers file a flight plan, should they be licensed pilots, should a tail number be painted on the tails of drones? While farmers like Blair and hundreds of other tech-savvy famers wait, valuable time and money is lost.

“The problem’s simple, there are no specific rules or regulations from the FAA for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture,” said Blair.

Right now government agencies like the BLM and Department of Agriculture have to jump through hoops just like Blair in order to fly unmanned aircraft. “They want to see new rules too, for the unmanned aircraft. We need partners to help sort this out; we need the federal agencies to team with Congressmen and organizations to help us get the tools we need to farm in these bad economic times; this could cut our costs,” added Blair.

Blair just got back from Washington D.C. where he met with Congressmen, the Acting Under-Secretary of Agriculture and anyone that would listen. He’s calling for a memorandum of understand signed by the Department of Interior, Agriculture with oversight by the FAA so farmers can use the technology this growing season. He’s hoping a green Obama administration will be sympathetic.

“As far as going green this is a big step in that direction and its also a push for better environmental awareness, better environmental practices within the Federal Government and the Farm Bill. Unmanned air systems fit the bill because this is a proactive technology and a brand new industry for commercial use.

Japanese farmers have used a 65 pound unmanned helicopter to spray fields since 1987. Unmanned commercial aircraft are overseen by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries which is USDA’s counterpart. Blair and other farmers are frustrated because technology developed in the U.S. are used by their counterparts in Japan, and they’re saving money.

Elliott Nowels of the Precision Ag Institute says the new practices save money. “Research shows that growers are gaining back their investment in precision Ag technology faster than we thought – often in just one to three years, and they are saving from $15 to $39 per acre by using inputs more efficiently with precision Ag tools, depending on crop and region of the country. At a time when inputs costs are going through the roof there’s never been a better time to adopt this technology.”

The institute just completed a survey of farmers using precision Ag practices:

· Eighty-five percent (85%) of corn growers, 88 percent of cotton growers and 100 percent of soybean growers indicated their operation has been more profitable using precision Ag technology.

· The average input savings per acre for these precision Ag users (inputs including seed, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and time/labor) $19 per acre for corn, $18.50/A. for beans and up to $39/A. for cotton.

· Fertilizer cost-savings led the way, coming in at $4 to $13 per acre depending on crop.

· The top benefits growers listed from their use of precision Ag technology were 1--the ability to apply chemicals and fertilizer where needed, 2--greater profitability due to lower input costs, and 3--identification of poor producing areas of their fields.

Robert Blair longs for the day when he can put all of the new farming practices to use on his farm. At a time of razor thin budgets and skyrocketing input costs, he wants outdated rules and regulations that drag him down, abolished.

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