Date: Sept. 8, 1997
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Associate
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <news@nas.edu>

Publication Announcement


Public-Sector Support Needed
To Advance Precision Agriculture

On the farm of the future, agricultural managers may be able to oversee their crops by tapping into data from global positioning systems, sensors, and computer models. This sophisticated style of management, known as precision agriculture, could make farming more cost-effective and environmentally sound, according to industry experts. For example, using detailed maps that show the "real-time" distribution of soil nutrients or threatening pests, a farmer could pinpoint the amount of water, pesticide, or fertilizer needed -- even for small areas within a field.

These technologies have the potential to revolutionize agriculture, but most are in the early stages of development and will need extensive research before they are proven effective, says a new report from a committee of the National Research Council. The focus of agricultural research will need to shift from conducting controlled laboratory experiments to gathering data and studying results on the farm. The federal government and land-grant universities -- which have played an uncertain and evolving role in developing these systems -- should build upon private sector efforts by providing funding and resources for this research, the committee concluded.

It identified several priorities that should be addressed, including the following:

> Create data-gathering and analysis tools for agricultural purposes. Many existing technologies, such as global positioning and database systems, were designed for other uses and will need to be adapted for farm settings. In addition, new types of sensors need to be developed. There is little incentive for the private sector to invest in much of the necessary, fundamental research. The federal government should sponsor basic research projects that will provide widespread benefits for agriculture.

> Clarify intellectual property and data privacy rights. The value of information will greatly increase as more sophisticated technologies are introduced. Farmers may want to make data about their fields available to outside vendors such as aerial and satellite sensing companies, fertilizer and seed dealers, and farm cooperatives. Universities and public agencies should ensure that farmers are aware of intellectual property policies and existing laws.

> Link rural farm communities to high-speed data networks. Public-private partnerships are being formed to meet a national goal of providing computers to all American schools by the year 2000. Agricultural organizations should work with public agencies and industry to ensure that farmsteads have access to computer networks.

> Provide unbiased assessments of the economic and environmental impact of precision agriculture methods. Many innovative growers are experimenting with technologies on their farms, but few have the resources to scientifically evaluate results or possible environmental effects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should work with other agencies and industry to ensure that objective evaluations are performed under many different scenarios. In addition, potential environmental effects of new systems should be measured.

> Educate and train agricultural professionals and students. Universities, technical colleges, and professional associations should emphasize a multidisciplinary approach to gathering and analyzing new types of data.

The study was funded by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy. Pre-publication copies of Precision Agriculture in the 21st-Century: Geospatial and Information Technologies in Crop Management are available from the National Academy Press for $35.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above.)


National Research Council

Board on Agriculture

Committee on Assessing Crop Yield:
Site-Specific Farming, Information Systems, and Research Opportunities

Steven T. Sonka(chair)
Soybean Industrial Chair for Agricultural Strategy and Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign

Marvin E. Bauer
Professor of Remote Sensing
University of Minnesota
St. Paul

Edward T. Cherry
Director, Government Relations and Agribusiness Affairs
FMC Corp.
Washington, D.C.

John W. Colburn Jr.
Co-founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer
Crop Technology Inc.
Houston

Ralph E. Heimlich
Geographic Information Systems Team Leader
Natural Resources and Environment Division of the Economic Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.

Deborah A. Joseph
Associate Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics
University of Wisconsin
Madison

John B. LeBoeuf
Agronomist, Senior Safety Officer and Pest Control Adviser
Fordel Inc.
Mendota, Calif.

Erik Lichtenberg
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Maryland
College Park

David A. Mortensen
Associate Professor of Agronomy
University of Nebraska
Lincoln

Stephen W. Searcy
Professor of Agricultural Engineering
Texas A&M University
College Station

Susan L. Ustin
Assistant Professor of Resource Science
University of California
Davis

Stephen J. Ventura
Associate Professor
Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Soil Sciences
University of Wisconsin
Madison

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Mary Jane Letaw
Program Officer