Computers Are in the Field, Literally

Industry cultivates a new information technology market down on the farm

Farmers have relied on the Farmer's Almanac for the past 100 years to help them gauge future crop yields. But that nebulous method of prediction is pass?. Today, farmers who need to forecast the fruit of their fields can just fire up their computers.

The agriculture business, like most industries from health care to transportation, has discovered the value of silicon. America's farmers are accessorizing their tractors with computers and satellite receivers and they're using geographic information systems to analyze each acre of their land.

Farmers' new interest in information technology has the private sector racing to introduce systems that help farmers do what's called "precision farming." Companies as diverse as electronics giant Rockwell International and tractor legend John Deere are hoping to cultivate a fertile market in agriculture information systems.

As recently as mid-1992, IBM market research suggested there was little to no market potential amongst farmers for information systems. But that changed in the last few years with the availability of both the Pentagon's global positioning system of satellites (GPS), which allow farmers to monitor small sections of their fields, and computers that are small, cheap and rugged.

"The technology has really come together in the last two years," said Jim Porterfield, technical specialist at the American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill. The current market is still small, but it's growing rapidly, he said.

Less than five percent of farmers use precision farming techniques right now, but that's going to change quickly, said Ron Olson, president of Top-Soil Testing Service Co. in Frankfort, Ill., a consulting firm that helps farmers set up precision farming systems. Olson predicts that 70 percent of farmers will be using portions of the technology within the next eight years. There are 900,000 farmers in the United States, though 200,000 of those farmers produce 70 percent of the nation's food. Companies will be targeting these larger farmers for the first sales.

In addition to the emerging market for the machines, companies such as Top-Soil and other consultants are discovering a plentiful services business. Between now and the year 2005, Olson predicts the services market could be worth up to $1.2 billion.

"This is going to revolutionize farming," Olson said. It will make farming a knowledge-based business, he said. But the electronics don't come cheap. The systems cost farmers between $5,000 and $12,000, depending on which technologies they need for their business.

So far, many farmers have been hesitant to fork out thousands of dollars. "They're sitting back and letting their neighbors try out the technologies first," Porterfield said. For precision farming to really take off, the technologies must save the farmer money. "Economics is the primary driver," he said.

The technologies are designed to reduce the volume of fertilizers and other nutrients a farmer must apply to his crops, which saves the farmer money and protects the environment. Sensors and a computer on board the tractor record data from each acre of soil to determine what nutrients each section needs. Then the farmer downloads that information from his mobile unit to his desktop computer where his geographic information system, or GIS, creates a prescription for how much fertilizer each section of his land needs. "Using precision farming, farmers are putting their money exactly where it needs to be spent," Olson said.

The information systems also show a farmer which portions of his land were most productive. In this case, sensors and a computer located on a combine measure the amount and quality of the crop as it is harvested. When added to the GIS, the farmer can see exactly which portions of his field created the premier yield.

Several companies are offering electronics that integrate the farmers' crop information into usable data. Rockwell International's Cedar Rapids, Iowa, unit is introducing a product in the middle of June called Vision System.

Rockwell's system will rival those of several disparate companies. Tractor specialist Deere and Company will have 100

units available for testing in 1995 and will be in full production for 1996. Case Corp., which manufacturers agriculture equipment, and Loral, traditionally a government contractor, are also reported to be considering this marketplace.

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