GPS and Business Intelligence: Rubenacker Farms Makes Hay With I.T.

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2006-10-02 Print this article Print

Crop farmers wield global positioning systems and business intelligence tools to nurture profits in the field.

The rain may pour, the sun may pound, but Kelly Robertson doesn't mind. He's a southern Illinois farmer who's always drawn a living from nature.

Between Rubenacker Farms in Dahlgren, Ill.—the commercial crop farm he helps manage—and his own fields down the road, Robertson oversees more than 9,300 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans.

His crops travel more than he ever has, part of the $200 billion worth of agricultural products grown in the U.S. each year, and the

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$68 billion to be exported this year to South Korea, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and other points around the world.

Ten years ago, a grain farmer walked the fields and stooped to run his fingers through the topsoil for a measure of its moisture and depth. He'd slide a notebook from his shirt pocket to pencil in the date he seeded the fields and how much fertilizer he sprayed.

When he looked to the skies for the gray, cauliflower-shaped clouds that bring heavy rain, or the thin wisps that float over sunny days, he knew he could do only so much to coax corn planted in May to sprout enough sweet ears by September to make the sweaty, bent-back work profitable.

Robertson, who is in his mid-30s, used to work that way. But for the past 10 years, he's worked among the growing ranks of "precision farmers" who supplement their farm sense with software and statistical analysis to help decide what to plant, how to grow it and when to sell it.

The most advanced precision farmers plow and plant with auto-steer tractors equipped with global positioning systems that guide the machines over fields by themselves. They fertilize with sprayers loaded with geographic information systems maps and computerized instructions to vary the amounts of nitrogen applied to different spots on a field, down to four-inch patches.

And, as they harvest their crops, weight and force sensors attached to 15-ton combines record the volume of corn or soybeans pulled from each plant at two-second intervals, associating the data with specific locations on field maps.

Then, like the best Wall Street risk managers, precision farmers upload these data points, via Zip drives or wireless networks, into statistical analysis software on Microsoft Windows systems in their offices. There, the data is combined with business information, such as the price of seed, cost of fertilizer, weather records and current market pricing. Analysis tools from SAS Institute, SPSS and others match costs and income to specific physical locations in the field to let farmers calculate crop profitability, row by row.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and various universities offer data and analysis tools for free, for monitoring crop prices, predicting weather and comparing infestation treatments. And farmers buy and sell grain over the Internet, like day traders, at sites such as Farmstech.com by Farms Technology in Overland Park, Kan.

"Farming is the oldest known human activity. You'd think that after 10,000 years there'd be nothing left to improve. Not true," says Michael Swanson, agricultural economist at Wells Fargo, a bank whose $10 billion in annual agricultural loans make it the biggest lender to farms in the U.S.

Information technology has made farming an analytical activity, and though some farmers shy away because of costs, many embrace the science. A close look shows that the technology produces solid returns and is drastically changing the business of agriculture.

Education levels among farmers have increased since the early 1990s, the USDA says. In 1991, 35.8% of U.S. farmers had attended college. By 2003, the latest year for which data is available, it was 45.2%. Ninety-two percent of young farmers, age 18 to 35, use computers and 89% consider the Internet a farming tool, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

A reliable count of farms that do precision farming doesn't exist. But Purdue University estimates that 20% of U.S. grain, for example, is planted using tractors with auto-guidance systems and custom-fertilized with computerized sprayers. And half of all U.S. grain is harvested by combines with yield monitors.

The effects of technology and business management techniques are evident to Swanson. In 1950, he notes, American farmers planted 83 million acres of corn, which produced 38 bushels per acre. In 2004, 81 million acres of corn were planted, with each acre yielding 160 bushels. Think about it: 2.5% fewer acres produced more than four times as much corn.

If today's farmers didn't use the technology they do, Swanson estimates, they would have had to plant 320 million acres of corn last year to meet demand: "We'd be planting parking lots and backyards."

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Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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