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Friday, March 21, 2014

GPS Technology Takes Root In Agriculture

As reported by the Imperial Valley Press: The history of agriculture is full of ideas and concepts that have allowed farmers to incrementally improve efficiency to unprecedented levels.

Global Positioning System satellites orbiting the Earth — the same satellites that guide automobiles and allow smartphone users to “check in” are helping farmers reach unprecedented levels of efficiency even as they try to figure out the best use for it.

“GPS in agriculture is new as far as heavy implementation,” said Tom Mastin, bio-resource and agricultural engineering lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“Without GPS, large-scale farming is going to be way too inefficient. Large-scale farms now have guidance systems and a GIS (geographical information system) manager.”
Some applications are obvious.

Farm implements, like tractors and fertilizer applicators, nowadays are self-guided and require minimal driver input.

“As far as a guidance system, it has reduced labor,” Mastin said.

Other applications are arguably more impressive.

For instance, GPS technology allows farmers to precisely level their fields and map the location of ditches, underground tile drainage lines and subsurface drip irrigation tape.

“You can disc the surface and you never lose the (subsurface drip) tape,” said David Layton, manager of an alfalfa farm in Calipatria.

Extensive use of GPS technology has allowed his company to profitably work land that might not be economically viable with conventional techniques. He asked that the name and location of the company not be published.

The idea is to be able to not just fine-tune the amount of water and fertilizer for given field, but to maximize the use of space.

“GPS makes the whole thing work,” said Ed Hale, an Imperial Valley farmer and consultant for Layton’s company.

Hale cites subsurface drip irrigation technology as a case in point.

“Drip (irrigation) doesn't work without GPS,” he noted.

He said he keeps running across examples where good concepts did not reach their potential.

“We’re tearing out the evidence of the drip that was tried by the Israelis during the late ’70s and early ’80s. They’re the pioneers of drip. When they first started they were so enamored with drip, they thought that it cured everything. That was a fallacy. 

They didn't have GPS technology.”
While he declined to say how much money that his companies have saved through a systematic use of GPS technology, he said that water savings at the Calipatria farm were “substantial.”

“Our feeling is that true conservation isn't so L.A. can grow. It’s so we can get more crop per drop,” Hale said.

The technology allows his operation to compete with growers around the world that operate with fewer constraints.

“Large ranches have compared efficiency with and without GPS,” he said. “GPS is 22 percent more efficient. That’s the difference between losing money and making a profit.

The cost of fuel and equipment has skyrocketed in recent years, he noted.

“Our costs are local. Markets are global. We’re competing with guys growing the same crop in Argentina, where there are no regulations or social safety nets. My local costs are important to me,” Hale said.