From the late 1980s, farmers in the United States, especially in the central farming regions, have been using precision agriculture more and more. This means they use special methods and tools to farm better. It helps them do farming in a smarter way, grow more crops, make more money, and protect the environment.
But even with all these good things, some farmers are still not sure about using these methods and tools. Professor Tong from South Dakota State University has been studying these methods and why some farmers use them while others don’t. She wants to understand what makes a farmer choose to use these smart farming methods or not.
In a recent research project, Wang and her team looked at what farmers think is the most important reason for using new farming methods and tools: making more money.
Wang said, “To get more farmers to use these smart farming methods and keep their farms healthy, it’s crucial for them to figure out how these methods can make them more money. In our study, we asked farmers who use these smart methods how much more money they make, and we also looked at things that might influence how much extra money they get. This helps us understand why some farmers make more money with smart farming.”
Perspectives on Precision Technologies in Agriculture
“Precision agriculture” is a way of doing farming that uses different methods and tools to make farming better. It helps deal with the differences in the field like where and when to plant and grow crops so that farming is smarter and more efficient.
In this study, scientists talked about eight popular smart farming methods. These include things like using machines that drive themselves, using pictures from space and flying robots, and adjusting how much fertilizer, seeds, and other things you use depending on where and when you’re farming.
All these methods can help farmers make more money if they use them.
Wang explained, “When farmers use different smart farming methods, they can work well together and make farming even better. The good results could be more than just saving money or working faster with one method. The real value of smart farming might come from less time when the farm isn’t working, using machines better, and not losing crops because of bad weather.”
To understand what farmers think about making money and using smart farming, the research team, which includes Wang and Hailong Jin, who are teachers in the Ness School of Management and Economics, and other teachers from different universities, sent surveys to 6,000 local farmers in 2021.
The questions were given to farmers in different areas like eastern South Dakota, eastern North Dakota, western Minnesota, and eastern Nebraska. They were asked to tell if they made more money or not when they used or didn’t use the smart farming methods we talked about earlier.
The most popular smart farming method is using machines that drive themselves, which helps farmers do things better on their fields. Many farmers use this.
The next most popular method is using pictures from space, and almost 60% of all farmers have tried it. Drones and flying robots are also used for this, but not as many farmers use them. Around 26% of farmers use drones, which is not as much as other methods, but it’s growing in popularity among farmers.
“The use of drones or flying robots with cameras has gone up a lot in the last ten years. Drones are different from space pictures because they can show things in more detail, more often, and they aren’t as affected by bad weather. Drones are also quicker to use, and they don’t cost a lot to get and keep working.” says Wang.
To understand what farmers think about making money, the research team needed to figure out if people who use smart farming methods made more money and what those who didn’t use them thought. For each of the smart farming methods we talked about earlier, about 60% of those who didn’t use them said they didn’t know if it helped them make more money on the farm.
“It’s not a shock that people who didn’t use smart farming methods don’t know if they make more money because they haven’t tried them. They probably never got information about it.” Wang said.
This shows that we need to understand better how smart farming helps make more money, especially in places with different types of farms, soil, and weather.
People who used most of the smart farming methods knew if it helped them make more money. But some farmers who used drones or space pictures didn’t know if it made them more money. And others didn’t notice any changes in how much money they made after using the smart farming methods we talked about earlier.
Wang further pointed out, “The tools that help farmers diagnose or understand their farms better, like drones and space pictures, make more money for farms by using things like adjusting how much fertilizer and other things they use. It’s tough for farmers to tell how much each tool helps because they work together.”
One of the main things we learned from the study is that farmers who have been using these smart farming methods for a long time (more than three years) are better at seeing how it affects how much money they make compared to those who used them for only a short time (a few years or months).
Wang said that as people use smart farming methods for a longer time and gather more data, they start to understand better how these methods affect their profits. She added that the data they gathered showed that profits from using these methods go up over time. Using methods that protect the environment probably helps increase the profits from smart farming.
Key Insights from the Study
Optimizing returns and yields by using resources efficiently has been made possible by precision ag. That’s why it’s been credited with contributing to the ‘Green Revolution.’ However, adoption rates are not as widespread as one might expect.
In South Dakota, precision ag practices for managing crops or livestock were used by 53% of farmers, according to a 2021 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even though this is one of the highest rates in the U.S., many other states have only a small fraction of their farmers adopting precision ag technology.
While profit is often the top concern when new technologies are used, it was shown in this study that people who didn’t use these technologies had no clue how their profits would change after they started using them.
“This shows that we need to look into how people who use these technologies rate the changes in their profits,” Wang said.
To make it easier for people to use smart farming methods, the research team mentioned that giving financial help during the first few years of using a new technology could be a good idea. They also thought that connecting people who have used these methods for a long time with those who haven’t could help more people start using them.
“Because the cost of things like seeds and fertilizer has gone up in recent years, it’s even more important to use smart farming methods. They help use these things in a smarter way and can often make them cheaper,” Wang said.
The full study was published in the academic journal Ecological Economics and can be found at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2023.107950.Precision Farming