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Precision agriculture technology helps farmers - but they need help

Lee Nunn says he uses a lot of precision agriculture on his Georgia farm to save resources.
Stephen Fowler
Georgia Public Broadcasting
Lee Nunn says he uses a lot of precision agriculture on his Georgia farm to save resources.

Lee Nunn has the first tractor his grandfather ever bought sitting at his farm in Madison, about an hour east of Atlanta: a 1968 John Deere 4020 that's gleaming green and still runs like a dream.

At the time, it was a technological marvel, with a 90 horsepower engine, a canopy roof – and zero computers.

"This was the first model of tractor back in the day – Now think, it's 1968 – that had an automatic cigarette lighter in 1968 and his people thought that was the best thing in the absolute world," Nunn said.

But a few rows down is what Nunn drives today, a behemoth John Deere 8360 machine that is outfitted with air conditioning, heated seats, tinted windows and other modern comforts that make those 10-12 hour days in the field a little more bearable.

"Farming's come a long way, we're a little bit ahead of the straw hats and the overalls days now," Nunn said, noting that his operation is a far cry from his grandfather's tractor.

Another thing that's come a long way is technology that guides a growing field in ag that marries innovative equipment with good old fashioned farming, also known as precision agriculture.

"Precision agriculture in most broadest terms would be a system whereby we can deliver exactly what a set of plants needs when they need it, no more, no less," said Eric Elsner, who runs the University of Georgia's J. Phil Campbell Sr. Research and Education Center.

"The precision ag technology can help that farmer make really complex decisions that are better decisions than if we just left it to the human brain and human nature," he said.

Precision agriculture helps farmers save money by using less water and fertilizer and releasing fewer pesticides into the environment. It harnesses real-time data to maximize their yields.

Practically speaking for Lee Nunn, that means having a GPS that guides the steering of his tractor with sub-inch accuracy, and the equipment it pulls has sensors that sends an array of data up to the cloud and into the palm of his hand.

"It records everything that it's doing: speed, direction, what type of seeds I'm planting, how many seeds I'm planting per acre per foot, the depth of the seeds," he said. "I've actually got one piece of equipment that measures the soil temperature and soil moisture as I go across the field."

Nunn grows crops like wheat, soybeans, corn and cotton across 1,500 acres and has witnessed firsthand the evolution in precision ag technology.

"The accuracy of the GPS is one thing that amazes me: This tractor can drive itself within an inch every year on the same line."

Barriers and burdens to wider use

Nunn has been using precision agriculture in some form for the last decade and is an evangelist of the financial and environmental benefits it brings. But he said there are barriers to more widespread adoption among small and medium sized farmers.

If you can afford the expensive equipment, spotty broadband can make it hard to access the data created by the machines. And if you've got the internet speed, these ag tech innovations don't always play nice across different machines or brands, like trying to use an Apple cable to charge an Android phone.

In agricultural terms, that's owning a green tractor from one company and wanting to add a red plow from a different one, Nunn said, something that can't really work without getting a third party to help connect them.

"To be honest, that's just another added cost, another added headache, another added piece of electrical equipment on a piece of farm equipment," he said. "So what we would like to see is some sort of standard to where all these different manufacturers' pieces of equipment will seamlessly operate together."

That's something that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree on. They're also pushing for grants to make precision ag tech more affordable.

Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune have a bill that would create standards for precision agriculture.

It also has incentives for companies to make sure those green tractors and red plows work better together.

Warnock recently met with Nunn and other farmers for a demonstration that included auto-steering tractors, drones and other precision technology at a University of Georgia farm. During a roundtable discussion they talked about ways the federal government could boost the use of these innovations.

"We saw today the huge difference that this technology is already making, but it could be much better," Warnock said to reporters after the visit.

"What I heard from these farmers again today is that it's important that these different technologies, whether it's drones or robotics or monitors, that they be able to talk to one another," he said.

Both farmers and lawmakers hope that legislation makes it into the omnibus Farm Bill later this year.

Copyright 2023 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.