Precision Agriculture at the Farm Progress Show

Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer



            The incremental improvements to precision agriculture technology struggled to compete for attention in the tents and demonstration fields of the 2001 Farm Progress Show held Sept. 25-27 a few miles south of Lafayette, Indiana. Some mid-sized companies showed their enthusiasm for the technology, but signs of retrenchment in the industry were visible as some major players reduced involvement.

            Marc Vanacht, a business consultant from St. Louis, MO, visiting the show,  explained that precision agriculture is maturing.

            “From 1990 to 1994 was the time of the precision ag entrepreneurs starting companies in their farm offices and machine sheds,” Vanacht said. “During the period 1995 to 1998 the major manufacturers jumped in by buying out entrepreneurs or by developing their own expertise. With the drop in grain prices and falling equipment sales in the late 1990s, companies took a hard look at the economic potential of precision agriculture.

“With the mergers and acquisitions of the last few years we have seen a tremendous drop in resources devoted to precision agriculture R&D. Tyler, Willmar and Ag Chem have been acquired, among others. Many of the entrepreneurs have either been bought out or have gone out of business.”


Mid-sized Enthusiasm

            Enthusiasm for precision farming was most evident at several mid-sized companies, but that enthusiasm was not always obvious to the casual visitor because these companies have smaller tents and displays. Trimble, Farmworks and SST had booths in the “Varied Industries” tent. Ag Leader had a modest tent on a side street of tent city.

            “In this business technical support is key,” said Ryan Oehler, of Daugherty Inc, working in the Ag Leader tent. “Many of our Ag Leader dealers are crop consultants or ag retailers who are working closely with their customers. The major manufacturers are in the iron business and have had trouble making the transition to this type of product.”        

            Scott Nusbaum, of Farmworks, said that a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) global positioning system (GPS) receiver that clips on to a Compaq iPAQ palmtop computer was drawing attention.

            “This is the tool for those people who have been wanting to get into GPS, but didn’t want to spend $3000 to $4000,” Nusbaum said. “It gives them a tool to start using for crop scouting, soil sampling and drawing field boundaries. Also, there are some people who never thought that they would be using GPS. But now that the price is coming down, they are starting to get interested.”

Among the major farm equipment manufacturers only John Deere and Caterpillar had staffed precision agriculture displays. In addition to their Greenstar®  yield monitor and Starfire™  GPS, the John Deere site touted the Field Doc™ system for providing traceability for identity preserved grains and introduction of the Autosteer system. Among other things, the Caterpillar display promoted the reduced need for calibration with their optically based yield monitor. The Case Advanced Farming System (AFS) was a shadow of former years. The AFS display consisted of a single dusty panel. There was no sign of precision agriculture in either the New Holland or the AGCO tents.


Automated Steering

            GPS guidance and automated steering seemed to be the biggest draw for both major manufacturers and mid-sized companies.

            “About one in three people ask about lightbars,” said Oehler. “Most of the interest in GPS guidance is from producers who already have a yield monitor and GPS, and want to add another use for their GPS.”

            Trimble offered a test drive tractor equipped with their Autopilot®   technology in the demonstration field outside of the Farm Progress Show tent city. With Autopilot®  the driver only has to turn on the ends. The current technology will follow straight rows with a one inch error, but not contours. Because the Trimble product uses Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS, cost is in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.

            “Some producers with drip irrigation use Autopilot for tillage,” said Michael Helling, Trimble. “They can till without tearing up the tape. Some vegetable producers use it build ridges and consistently plant on the peak of that ridge. “

Helling also said that some Midwestern producers are using Autopilot®  for corn and soybeans in the Midwest. With autopilot producers can hire lower quality labor and still have straight rows.

            By early next year John Deere Autosteer promises a lower cost automated steering based on their Starfire™ GPS. The cost of the John Deere product may be easier to justify for corn and soybeans, and the two to three inch accuracy may even be accurate enough for planting row crops.


Public Sector Presence

            Public sector precision agriculture efforts were better represented than in the past. The Purdue Laboratory for Applications of Remote Sensing (LARS) was part of a high tech display in the Varied Industries tent organized by the Potash and Phosphate Institute (PPI). The Stennis Space Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and their spinoff company ITD Spectral Visions were also part of that display.

The Purdue Site-Specific Management Center (SSMC) had a tent outside of tent city, next to the corn maze. The maze in the shape of Purdue train mascot had been laid out with the help of GPS. An estimated 10,000 people trooped through the maze and most of those stopped in the SSMC tent to pick up their prize, a maze poster. Some 75 groups checked out backpack GPS units in the SSMC tent to navigate the maze.

The SSMC tent had 17 displays from various Purdue precision agriculture research projects, ranging from remote sensing to economics. Judging from the number of people who entered the tent to pick up a maze poster without stopping to look at the displays, the SSMC material was probably too technical for most Farm Progress Show visitors. However, there was a core group of visitors who came to read and ask questions. 

            In both the public and private sectors there were those who wondered if the Farm Progress Show is the best venue for precision agriculture. The Farm Progress Show is the mass market of agriculture. Precision agriculture seems to be turning into a more specialized technology that mainly interests a group of technologically oriented producers and those who provide knowledge based services to the larger agricultural market (e.g. crop consultants, agronomists working for ag retailers).

            “The audience for our product is much more targeted than what we find at the Farm Progress Show,” said Brandon Buie, SST account manager. Buie looked like the stereotype of a Maytag repair man sitting alone in his booth. “ We do best with a group of about 30 people who want to learn about analysis of precision ag data.”