Call it “precision agriculture,” “prescription farming” or even “space age farming.” Whatever the term, there is something radical happening down on the farm. Making novel use of satellites high above Earth and geographic information systems close to home, farmers are now able to tailor their soil and crop management to the varying conditions of their land — and on a very small scale.
In some ways, precision agriculture has been around since humans first planted seeds in the ground. Faced with land that may be soggy, bone-dry, hilly, hummocky or rocky, farmers have long made use of their best parcels of land for crop production and have saved eroded slopes and other unproductive areas for pasture. They have applied a little more fertilizer here, sprayed extra herbicide there.
But farming is now entering a new era of precision. Tractors outfitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers are driving themselves up and down fields on precise tracks, dispensing just the right amount of fertilizer for each section of land. Hands off the steering wheel, the farmer need only sit back and watch. Combines are harvesting not only crops but also information on grain moisture and crop yield and are referencing that information to GPS coordinates. Using data gleaned from Earth-observation satellites such as RADARSAT, scientists are able to construct maps of soil quality across Canada and plan better for extreme weather conditions, such as droughts or floods, that can wreak havoc on farming operations.
The timing could not be better. Scientists report that per capita arable land has been declining globally, primarily due to population growth and urbanization. Demand for the world’s water resources is expected to increase by 40 percent over the next 20 years. Competition among users of land and water will increase pressures to utilize resources more efficiently in the future. In Canada, climate change could see the risk of desertification in the southern prairies rise by 50 percent.
Precision-farming tools are an important part of a sustainable-agriculture strategy. Taken together, they represent a system that offers farmers information about their land and crops and a means to deploy their resources wisely.