USDA Report on Precision Ag – The Devil is in the Details

This past summer the USDA’s Economic Research Service released a report on the current state of precision agriculture in the United States written by David Schimmelpfenning and Robert Ebel.

At first glance it would suggest this is a segment of agriculture that is going Mach 2 with its hair on fire.  Yield monitoring is used on over 40 percent of all combine harvesters in the U.S. and both manual and automated GPS guidance continues to grow at exponential rates.

It’s there where the warm, fuzzy part of the report ends and the real story begins.  The authors of the report note that while yield monitor use has seen steady growth  – actual GPS yield mapping has not.  Another precision horse that is lagging is the adoption – or maybe more precisely – the implementation of variable-rate technologies.

None of us who have been around the precision ag industry this past decade are shocked by this lack of “progress”.   Precision agriculture is still finding its way.  It is still searching for its true identity.  Yield monitors took hold because they are like the “I Love Lucy Show” – they’re good entertainment in the cab.  GPS guidance took off because for lack of a better reason – it was simple and growers didn’t want their neighbors to have straighter rows than they did.

Frankly, the industry as done a poor job of preparing and training those who use and can benefit the most from precision agriculture technology.  It is like we sat them in a cockpit of a 747 and asked them to fly from New York to Paris without any flight lessons or manual.

From day one the industry also sold producers on the premise that precision ag was easy and they could do everything themselves – sort of like brewing your own beer in your basement.  Precision ag data management is hard and is getting harder.  Growers don’t know where to turn or what comes next.  We’ve handed them a 1,000 piece puzzle and forgot to give them the picture on the front of the box.  The reality of the situation is that there are real benefits to be had but we cannot expect producers to complete this journey alone and without some sense of direction.