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High tech, high expectations in the field

New and relatively inexpensive technology is changing how and where growers make management decisions. While gadgets such as smartphones may not have been designed for agriculture, farmers have a great opportunity to maximize the technology’s key features.


December 17, 2009
By Blair Andrews
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Considering the cost of mistakes with something like spray applications, faster communication between a grower and a crop input dealer can provide obvious financial gains.


 

New and relatively inexpensive technology is changing how and where growers make management decisions. While gadgets such as smartphones may not have been designed for agriculture, farmers have a great opportunity to maximize the technology’s key features.

Peter Gredig, project coordinator at Farms.com, is an avid user of the smartphone on his cash crop farm, northeast of St. Thomas, Ontario. He describes the smartphone, with brand names such as BlackBerry and iPhone, as a cell phone that can access e-mail and the internet, take pictures, store audio files, and even provide GPS capability. By using the smartphone, Gredig has found that he now has the ability to perform many of his “office” tasks from the field, for example, sourcing production information and communicating with suppliers. In essence, Gredig says the new technologies have enabled a virtual farm office. “I would be like most guys; I would farm and then come home at night, or first thing in the morning, and do my desk top computing, checking markets, newsletters and weather for the day, spending an hour or more on the computer.”

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But with the combination of higher speed Internet access and his overall comfort with the mobile technology, Gredig has dramatically reduced his time on the desktop. Moreover, he also does not have to leave the field to go back to the office to source the information, including the markets and the weather, which Gredig says are the two most important things for crop producers. “I’ve got my BlackBerry set up so that if I press a button, I go directly to the Farms.com markets page from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Although it’s a 10-minute delay, I’m right there, and it takes five seconds to get that information. Likewise, I have programmed another button to get the weather and radar.”

In addition to information, Gredig uses the e-mail function of the smartphone to effectively send specific information to others to help him make crop management decisions. “I can be in the field, take a picture of a crop that is under stress from something, and e-mail it on the spot to my seed dealer or my agronomy guy and keep on working,” says Gredig, adding that he could also use the rudimentary GPS system on the smartphone to mark the exact location in the field. “What I’m seeing, my team can see almost immediately. The fact you can do it on the fly saves a lot of time, and during certain times of the year, that is the most valuable commodity there is.”

If the field observations call for a management decision such as having the crop sprayed, Gredig will phone his crop advisor and then send an e-mail to confirm that the decision has been made and executed. “If something goes wrong, we’ve got an electronic trail to come back to, to give me some protection.”

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 The key to making better management decisions, says Karon Cowan of AgTech GIS, is finding the right software that co-ordinates all the information from technology that is currently available.


 

Ian McDonald, applied research coordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says the electronic communication between grower and crop input dealer might be the most pertinent application of the technology. “When you consider the costs of the mistakes in this game; when you’ve got sprayers with 1500 or 2000 gallons of water that will cover more than 100 acres, a mistake can get to be very costly for everyone involved, and quickly,” says McDonald. “This technology helps to reduce errors and ensure accuracy and timeliness.”

Not only does this process protect the farmer, notes McDonald, but other people involved in the decision are covered because the e-mail creates a confirmation of the voice discussions. The immediacy is also a benefit. Prior to the new mobile capabilities, McDonald says a producer would have made the phone call from the field and would plan to follow up later by sending an e-mail from the farm office. Because of fatigue or other reasons, the producer might sometimes forget to send the follow-up message. “Now you can do right there in the field when you are thinking about it and everyone is clear on the decisions that were agreed upon,” says McDonald.

Given the significance of such an exchange, farmers will want to ensure they have reliable service. Gredig says it would be wise to ask neighbours and friends about the performance of the wireless providers in the area before signing a three-year deal. Depending on the location, he says, choosing the right provider is critical.

McDonald organized an information session on the new gadgets at the 2009 Southwest Crop Diagnostic Days in Ridgetown. While Peter Gredig covered smartphones, Karon Cowan of AgTech GIS Sales and Leasing, in Embro, Ontario, discussed GPS technology and mapping systems. Cowan agrees that smartphones and precision agriculture gadgets are providing more tools, but says that the critical aspect is the ability to pull the information together to make the best management decisions. She remarks that the tools have given growers the ability to put information with location, thereby creating a “new language” of crop production. “We can gather information in the field using electronics such as yield monitors, planting monitors and application monitors, to monitor what we’re doing and we bring it back into the office to analyze it. We communicate with service providers or business partners to make and deliver those management decisions back to the field using GPS to take us back to those same places where we noticed something that we want to manage differently,” explains Cowan.

To demonstrate the importance of integrating the information and analyzing it, Cowan says people should view the effort as producing revenue maps. “I can see where the highs and lows are in the field, and we can put a dollar amount to that, not only yield in bushels per acre between this area and that area, but how much money was generated in each area of the field. I can then take the map to the appropriate service provider and talk in a concrete way about field conditions and crop performance to discuss what products they recommend for this situation; seed varieties, fertility or crop protection options.”

This example is just one scenario. Cowan says the map provides a solid recording mechanism for various aspects of production, including fertility issues, crop rotation and tiling. “There are so many possibilities for the ‘why’. This mapping technology doesn’t tell you how to fix everything. It shows you the ‘where’, which makes you ask the ‘why’. Then you have figure out what you are going to do with it and, with the technology, you have the means to take the strategy back to the field.”

As with smartphones, Cowan says other computer technology is becoming less expensive, more portable and user friendly. The advent of powerful and rugged hand-held devices has given farmers tools they can use in the field. Netbook computers, which look like miniature versions of laptop computers, provide powerful and inexpensive computing options for much of the software that is useful for agriculture.

Although much attention is given to the gadgets, Cowan highly recommends a good software package. “I consider software critical because that is what allows you to buy the best of breed. I can perhaps buy one brand of GPS or lightbar, another brand of monitor and a third brand of controller. I can mix and match, and what pulls that together is the office software.”

The Countering Distracted Driving and Promoting Green Transportation Act in Ontario
Another important consideration for the farm use of smartphones relates to the newly implemented Countering Distracted Driving and Promoting Green Transportation Act. Ian McDonald, research coordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says the new law is very simple: it prohibits the use of hand-held cell phones and other hand-held communications devices while driving.

Hands-free use of electronic devices would still be permitted, so Bluetooth technology, which enables hands-free use, will become more important. With this technology, a number can be dialed on command using voice recognition. The process, however, can be inconsistent. McDonald says that Blue-tooth will recognize certain names, but will have difficulty with others. It is also not entirely hands-free because a button must be pushed on the earpiece.
McDonald says that people will have to be aware of the safety concerns related to other functions while driving. 

Applications such as internal contact lists and the ability to capture information through e-mail are valuable, but they are not accessible in a hands-free mode. “People have got used to using the features and it will be hard to get them to stop using them while driving. With many jurisdictions banning hand-held use, the technology vendors will be forced to find solutions that will allow users to access these features in a hands-free environment.”

In late summer 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) website stated that Bill 118, The Countering Distracted Driving and Promoting Green Transportation Act, 2009, is expected to come into effect in the fall of 2009. In fact, the law took effect on October 26, 2009. The MTO website also notes that reports indicating that the law took effect on September 1 were incorrect. With the new law in place, drivers who text, type, e-mail, dial or chat using any hand-held device will face fines of up to $500 upon conviction. 

Cell Phone Usage While Driving

  • Distracted drivers are a safety risk to themselves and others.
  • It is illegal in Ontario for drivers to use any electronic devices that can cause driver distraction as of October 26, 2009.
  • The focus is on educating drivers until February 1, 2010.
  • During this educational period officers will use their discretion as to whether a charge is warranted, which would be by way of a summons.
  • Starting February 1, 2010, charges can be laid by
  • issuing an offence notice with a set fine.
  • Police have always had the ability to lay charges for careless driving or criminal driving offences such as dangerous driving, if warranted.


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