Archived Story

Farmers see future in the air

Published 11:05am Friday, September 6, 2013

A group of farmers walking a plot just outside Elbow Lake during the Red River Marketing Company’s annual customer appreciation tour turned their eyes to the sky Thursday afternoon as a small unmanned aerial vehicle buzzed overhead.

As the aircraft tossed in the wind, some of the onlookers joked about the confused geese flying nearby, others about “drones” and conspiracies.

Many agreed, however, that they were looking at the future of farming.

“This is very leading edge technology,” said Greg Emerick, a demonstrator from Farm Intelligence centered in Mankato. “Everybody wants to know it and understand it because this is going to become something that is part of a farmer’s everyday operation.”

Emerick took the afternoon to present and demonstrate the emerging technology, its advantages and what it could bring to markets in the not-so-distant future. Making several turns over fields on an automated path set by GPS, the small craft took readings of the crops below. From disease to pests to areas that need fertilizers, the measurements could mean many advantages for farmers in the future.

“For example, we can provide information that allows people to understand what their stand count looks like,” Emerick said. “So if we fly (the aircraft) early in the season, we can identify individual plants and those individual plants help farmers recognize or understand what their stand count looks like. That in and of itself has a huge financial impact.”

While it may seem like futuristic observation from the air is still something in the infancy of technological life, Emerick said observers have been excited by the technology. One of the biggest reasons is how valuable that information is to their business.

“Without a hesitation I can tell you everyone is incredibly enthusiastic. You’re really scouting your fields from the air now,” Emerick said. “This is very impactful. It will reduce farmers’ cost, not only from herbicide or pesticide perspective, but also the need of using fertilizers. We’ll be able to identify the areas that will need fertilizer, so they won’t need to fertilize everything.”

And while the technology is still only in its first year of demonstration and still adjusting to research and preliminary trials, the possibilities grabbed the interest of many who were in attendance.

“If you want to continue to grow, as well as get better and keep improving, you have to be on the cutting edge of technology,” said Jeffrey Larson after watching the craft make several swoops overhead.

Larson’s family has been farming for four generations near Evansville and he said he never imagined such technology could ever exist. From tractors that drive themselves to gadgets that measure every little aspect of the business, Larson said these type of gadgets will continue to be important as the world’s population grows and farmland decreases with urban sprawl.

There are concerns, however. While Larson was somewhat tongue-in-cheek about “big brother” manning the sky, other serious concerns, like availability, safety and costs, certainly came to mind.

But standing out in the plot with so many heads turned eagerly to the sky, it’s hard to believe the advantage the information from the technology won’t make it a fixture in the future.

“This technology is good,” Larson said. “We need it to do better at what we already do well.”

And if it does catch on, Emerick said he believes the future won’t take long to get here. Within a year, he expects automated unmanned aircrafts to be overhead in many fields across the region.

“Even by next spring, this is going to be something that people are going to understand and appreciate,” Emerick said. “It will only continue to grow from there.”

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