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Published January 23, 2012, 09:15 AM

'Are you with me?'

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Precision agriculture is an evolving process that’s going even more high-tech. Prescription agriculture is just starting, and the technology is reaching down into the food people eat. That’s the message from an array of scientists and equipment providers, who spoke at the newly-launched Precision Agriculture Summit in Jamestown, N.D.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Precision agriculture is an evolving process that’s going even more high-tech.

Prescription agriculture is just starting, and the technology is reaching down into the food people eat.

That’s the message from an array of scientists and equipment providers, who spoke at the newly-launched Precision Agriculture Summit in Jamestown, N.D., organized by the Red River Valley Research Corridor and hosted at the North Dakota Farmers Union headquarters.

Companies are offering new technologies to make them more efficient with water, pesticides and fertilizers but also about integrating it further with the quality of life and the environment, plus “prescription foods” and location.

In one panel, major equipment manufacturers talked about what they’re offering, and how it fits together.

Shannon Cameron, Agricultural Management Solutions regional manager for John Deere, for example, described the word “telematics,” which uses telecommunications to link information and computers for decision-making help. John Deere has “FarmSite,” an integrated strategy that involves the technology at various levels, with three pillars, including machine optimization, logistics optimization and ag decision support.

The strategy includes such things as tracking machines, comparing their efficiency and making them more efficient, or allowing the machines to call in with alerts to a central decision maker. Machines can be put in a “geofence,” putting a “box around the machine and having it tell us when it goes outside of that box.” They can be monitored for a curfew, or managed for maintenance. A harvest module is coming out under the JDLink system. The systems can track yield, moisture and other data. They can compare their efficiency by operator. The machines can be set up to track time harvesting in the field, and time idle.

Understanding costs

The software can be set up to understand costs, so that costs and profitability are automatically calculated. With John Deere Remote Display Access, the dealers will be able to see what the farmer sees in the field. “We’re going to be able to see that operator’s machine, see exactly what they’re seeing on the screen and be able to trouble-shoot those issues from afar,” he says. The operator has to accept the access, with the goal of optimizing the operation.

Others on the panel included Bruce Ristau, precision farming specialist for CNH Telematics; Denton Schiesow, U.S. sales manager for Raven Industries and Marlin Melander, ATS product manager for AGCO. The providers offer a dizzying array of software and equipment, with connectivity between cellular and Wi-Fi connections.

Among other things, Schiesow demonstrated a signal strength tracker that shows a map of cellular strength within a farmer’s trade area. “This tool will go away some day because there will be more and more cell towers. Connectivity is not going to be an issue before long. Today it is,” he says.

Lanny Faleide, president of Agri ImaGIS Technologies of Fargo, gave his perspective. The company provides remote sensing services to the agricultural community, and developed an e-commerce website, called SATSHOT.com to deliver satellite imagery to farmers, with software to analyze and make decisions on variable-rate applications of chemicals and fertilizer. In Jamestown, Faleide talked about cell phone and iPad technology and how they are going to be used more seamlessly in the precision ag sector.

“In some ways it’s a little futuristic, but in other ways it’s here today,” he says.

Future is here

Faleide says his company’s softwares have to link in with softwares from the major manufacturers. “It’s a matter of the whole ‘cloud system’ bringing the data into big hubs and being able to share that information back and forth,” he says. While most farmers are using global positioning system technologies to help steer their tractors more precisely, only 10 percent of farmers are using the technology to its maximum capacity.

“A lot of growers feel the technology is too overwhelming,” Faleide says. “Now, with the advent of cell phones and PDAs, (personal digital assistants)” they can retrieve and interpret files in a more mobile way. The systems are “opening up their clouds to third-party vendors.”

Lowell Catlett, a “futurist” from New Mexico, offered a rapid-fire, spell-binding picture of the changing world for plants, animals and people.

Catlett points to advancements in smartphones and “open-source software” and “open-source hardware” all people who carry one could be a part of monitoring the environment, he says, aiding in the prediction of weather patterns and insect infestations.

“Are you with me folks?” Catlett asks, intermittently predicting that the changes in technology will “blow your doors off.” Catlett is dean and chief administrative officer for New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, holds a doctorate from Iowa State University and has won numerous awards for his teaching. He is billed as a consultant to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Defense and Labor, and as a former consultant to unspecified Fortune 500 companies.

Information technology is changing everything, he says.

Creating efficiencies

“It’ll be just as much about producing food for a hungry world as it will be about making sure that the environment and water and everything else are protected. And we have advanced knowledge of it, this will blow you away,” Catlett says.

Farmers and others are using computer software to build equipment, buildings and other items in on-site manufacturing. The developments will eventually eliminate the deficiencies of manufacturing in China or other countries, where the items are made and shipped overseas.

What it has done for manufacturing, Catlett says he’ll “guaran-damn-tee” it’ll do for food.

He calls this issue “prescription food,” because it involves “the most complicated thing we regularly put in our bodies.” In Catlett’s vision, future consumers will be taking smartphones into grocery stores, entering and scanning data to determine whether they should buy this or that food, based on calories, fat and vitamins — prescription food.

“You need some conjugated linolenic acid,” he says, in a hypothetical conversation between the device and the consumer in a grocery store “You need three ounces of sirloin steak. It’s over there. And it’s on sale,” Catlett says. “Trust me, I’ve worked with health care professionals, day in and day out; they don’t get it. Who’s going to own prescription food? Us.”

He says diets among people may be 95 percent the same, but the 5 percent difference may make a difference between health and acid indigestion. “I’ll take a DNA chip that’s behind my ear, nonsurgically implanted,” he says. “We’ve got to where that’ll do a constant analysis of 100 body chemicals— give that to my medical doctor all the time. So which medical doctor is going to be better at helping you? The one that gives you a yearly physical and your blood pressure once? Or those that get your blood pressure every minute?”

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