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Precision Agriculture – An Essential Tool for Effective Management Strategies

By Michael Princevalle

Expert Editorial

Can We Agree

During my tenure as a Soils Scientists at Coastal Viticultural Consultants (CVC), I have observed in recent years that the concept of precision agriculture (PA) has gained coverage in the press and agricultural industry technical meetings, and has increased in its implementation. Precision agriculture seems to have a breath of definitions, beliefs and aspects within the agricultural community. Precision agriculture can be perceived as anything from global positioning systems (GPS) for computer guided field equipment, to automation of irrigation controls, to using geo-referenced aircraft and satellites to collect and review aerial imagery of a particular site or area. For the purposes of this article, let’s subscribe that precision agriculture is, in part, about collecting appropriate information, via observations or from some type of senor(s) or sampling mechanism, and using that information for management decisions that are based upon reliable data. Furthermore, and very importantly, let’s agree that PA is site-specific, meaning managing ‘larger’ fields as a group of ‘smaller’ fields.

Several colleges and government agencies offer courses and grower technical meetings, and many articles (research – based and anecdotal) have been published on the merits of PA and its implementation. As a scientist, I appreciate the value and use of empirical, reliable data to engage sound decision and actions for clientele. Kudos to universities (University of California at Davis, Fresno State, Oregon State, Cornell, etc.) government agencies (USDA, NRCS, Resource Conservation Districts, university agricultural extension services, etc.) as well as private researchers and industries for their hard work in scientifically vetting, developing and providing reasonably reliable, efficacious studies and results that provide a foundation for effective precision agriculture practices. Thanks to the aforementioned entities and their research, as well as advances in technologies, agriculturalists have suitable tools to obtain credible and reliable information to increase the opportunity to reap benefits from precision agriculture practices. It is likely most agriculturalists agree that an important goal of PA is to implement data – based management decisions to achieve more effective use of resources (a mainstay in ‘sustainable agriculture’), increasing opportunities for profits and, in some areas, comply with local regulations.

Ending Long Held Beliefs – New Management Strategies with Precision Agriculture

Having grown up on a farming operation, my first exposure to some likeness of precision agriculture occurred in the late 1960s / early 1970s. Back then farm management decisions were mostly anecdotal; typically based upon ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ or ‘that’s what my neighbor is doing’, or ‘based upon the date of the calendar, it’s time to do such and such’, to cite a few ‘traditional’ beliefs used to justify and employ farming actions. At that time the notion of precision agriculture primarily consisted of collecting random soil samples for chemical analysis and using the results to better understand fertilizer or soil amendment needs. Collecting samples for data and using that data was mostly perceived as untraditional, ‘expensive’, and met with some resistance from farming communities. Fortunately, since the 1980s / 1990s, precision agriculture, as defined above for this narrative, has become more than a buzz phase, and is become more trusted and mainstream in agricultural management decision processes. As resources, profit margins and regulatory compliance become more challenging to obtain in agriculture, it seems that implementing PA to make management decisions has been replacing habitual actions or using anecdotal experiences in farming operations. This is not to diminish the importance of a grower’s personal observations and knowledge of their particular farming operation. However, the tools within the PA processes can help quantify, enhance and better quantify personal experiences to enable better foresight and predictabilities for more effective resources use and / or improve yield goals, for better economies.

Sound Data Collection – An Essential Path for Precision Agriculture

Any tool can be misused and misapplied, which can produce harmful results. Precision agriculture falls in this realm. And, there can be many tools used within PA that are critical components, which, too, can be misapplied or misused, resulting in data that is counterproductive. Precision agriculture can be a very useful tool in management decision processes to deploy more effective actions in the field and / or to comply with local regulations. Successful PA depends upon collecting data that is applicable to specific areas and accordingly taking appropriate actions based upon the data. So, implementing proper data collection to obtain suitable, representative samples is important for successful PA.

Any management tool can be misused that can produce unintended consequences. In effort to avoid misusing PA as a management tool, critical underpinnings of PA include a) proper collection of data, b) proper interpretation of the data, and c) defining areas (of a site) data represents. Misunderstanding these underpinnings has the potential to produce ill-fated management decisions that can produce results that are inadvertent, costly and detrimental. These aforementioned topics will be elaborated upon in subsequent articles, and will include discussions on technologies used for sound data collection and defining areas data represents. So stay tuned for articles on electronically mapping soils for better clarification of characteristics and boundaries and aerial imagery to monitor and map plant performance, to name but a few topics.

Michael PrincevalleExpert Editorial
by Michael Princevalle, Senior Soils Scientist, Coastal Viticultural Consultants

Michael Princevalle is a senior soils scientist with Coastal Viticultural Consultants. Mr. Princevalle has been a working soils scientist for over 35 years, and has worked in the agricultural and environmental science industries. Mr. Princevalle has given lectures and talks at community colleges and at various agricultural and environmental science industry events.

Coastal Viticultural Consultants, Inc. (CVC) is a professional agricultural consultancy, established in 1998, that employs highly experienced, multidisciplinary technical staff that include soils science, viticulture, agronomy and environmental sciences, and geographic information systems. CVC offers professional technical services to efficiently manage vineyards, orchards and other agricultural crops, with emphasis in sustainable agriculture. CVC serves California, and has clientele in other Western States and internationally.

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