Smith Farms is based in Rockbridge County, VA, a multigenerational farm where Mack Smith and his family produce corn, hay, soybeans, and cattle. It is not the place one would expect agriculture‘s high-tech tools to be used with the trees and fields as far as the eye can see, but looks can be deceiving. Smith relies on an autosteer device to guide his tractor through the fields powered by a GPS device that is so precise, it measures in inches rather than feet. This technology not only protects against waste, it helps increase crop yields while reducing costs.
Their fertilizer trucks they use have used GPS for some time now, and this spring, they hired a GPS-equipped helicopter to aid them in applying chemicals. Just over a month ago, they made the decision to install the autosteer on their tractors to help drive the machine. “If it was just me here farming and I didn’t have all this technology, I’d be lost,” said Smith.
How They Use GPS
The satellite constellation and GPS receivers help track their position, and can be used for a host of reasons. The GPS device can aid farmers when mapping fields, locate outcroppings of rocks, or even different types of soil. Additionally, it can reduce the amount of fertilizer or other chemicals the farmer lays, assuring each part of the farm’s fields are treated only once and no more. The autosteer will assure that rows are planted straight and symmetrically, taking human error out of the equation altogether. “It’s awful hard, when you’re sitting on a tractor, watching out across a 100-acre field, trying to keep a straight row. It’s almost impossible,” said 60-year old Mack Smith. “With autosteer, I’ll be able to do that.” Autosteer also allows them to use less seed, as well as consuming less fuel, which adds up to greater profit.
The eastern part of Virginia has been using this technology for some time, as well as the states in the Midwest, where all of Smith’s children attended college. They are the first, however, to use GPS in the mountains of western Virginia. A Virginia Tech professor and specialist who’s written extensively about precision farming, Bobby Grisso, says that flatter areas are where you will find most use of GPS due to richer soils. He said the environmental movement fueled the rise of precision agriculture, and for the past 30 years, has become increasingly more accurate, leading to better agricultural practices. He estimates roughly 17 percent of Virginia’s farmers use the GPS and mapping capabilities of precision farming. In the Midwest, 30 to 40 percent of farmers rely on the same technology. GPS receivers typically cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, and adding autosteer and other elements can make the cost jump by the thousands.
Better for Farmers, Better for the Environment
Smith Farms hopes to increase productivity by using the GPS device, while at the same time decreasing their carbon footprint by improving distribution of seeds and chemicals. They also wish to improve record keeping. They keep track of various government initiatives that encourage managing nutrients, limited tilling, crop rotation, and balancing grazing. “Environmentally, there are programs out there that are encouraging farmers to do more of this stuff,” said Smith. “The problem I see, though, is that a lot of farmers don’t have the record keeping that allows them to get into those programs.”
If farmers did keep good records, they could have their management plans approved by the state or federal government which would lead to the offset of the cost of such precision equipment in the form of tax credits. According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, for example, farmers can take advantage of a credit towards fertilizer application equipment expenses.
The primary reason farmers can benefit from the GPS technology: reducing the amount of planting materials or fertilizer they use. Sprayers linked in to the GPS device, for example, will turn off automatically if they pass over part of a field that has already been sprayed, or should not be sprayed. With the cost of seed as high as it is ($300 – $500 for a bag of seed corn as compared to $30-$40 fifteen to 20 years ago), this ensures the farmer is getting the most crop for the dollar. “You really have to make sure that everything is right, or else you’re just throwing money out the door,” according to Marcus Smith who learned about mapping and GPS technology in his studies at Western Illinois University. “With the autosteer, we won’t be overlapping as much, so we won’t be spending as much time in the field. Therefore we conserve fuel.”
Not A Lot of Support
Mack Smith admits that although he’s planted roughly 500 acres this spring using the autosteer, he is still learning. He says that because the technology is so new to his area, dealers aren’t able to offer the kind of support he would like. In talking with farmers from Charlottesville and areas near Northern Virginia who are currently using the autosteer device, they don’t have it any easier in the area of support. The rows he planted are straight, but the graphical display of the device is a bit overwhelming. “I’ve spent days and days and days in there, and it was not easy, but I’m getting better at it. It’s a learning experience, and it takes patience,” Smith said.