Precision Tech Versus Precision Science

Laura McNamara

Dr. Joseph Berry speaks about the science behind precision agriculture.The technology of precision and the science behind it are two very distinct things you ask Dr. Joseph Berry. Joseph is a leading consultant and educator in the application of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS technology. He possesses more than 40 years of experience in GIS. As far as how GIS applies to precision agriculture, well, Joseph’s work and research spans more than 15 years. When it comes to precision agriculture today, Joseph considers one specific question in particular:

“Is the technical cart in front of the scientific horse?”

Joseph says he believes the science of precision agriculture is at significantly different stage of development than the technology and application of precision agriculture. His focus is on the science.

The concept of precision agriculture encompasses several roles for Joseph. He says it is a technique that’s applied when “doing right thing at the right place at the right time”. He adds that it also identifies and responds to field variability. That, he says, is where and when it applies to science. One thing Joseph says precision agriculture doesn’t do is “replace indigenous knowledge.” Rather, “it’s a mechanism to extend it.”

Joseph spoke at this month’s 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, CO. He gave listeners a brief overview of how GIS, specifically, transformed from a technology not necessarily related to precision agriculture into a science that specifically supplements the technologies driving precision agriculture. He says GIS in particular is a big deal:

“The U.S. department of Labor has said geotechnology is one of three mega technologies for the 21st century,” Joseph said. “We identified only three that are radically going to change society. The other two are biotechnology and and nanotechnology. So the field [precision agriculture] you’re tinkering in is thought to be a mega technology.”

Precision agriculture is also a technology that Joseph says is rapidly changing the entire agriculture industry. Joseph says the application he works with, fully integrated multimedia mapping analysis, is no different. For him, advances in GIS and mapping are enabling farmers to switch from what he calls a “whole field” approach to farming to a “site-specific” method.

The “whole field” approach is one that Joseph says assumes and relies on the fact that “average” conditions are the same everywhere within the field. A field is uniform and homogeneous. He points out though, that this is rarely the case. Thus, he concludes that applying such an approach leaves room for a tremendous amount of error when trying to maximize both procedural input and output.

Joseph’s solution is the “site-specific” method, where a field is broken into small consistent pieces, or cells. Specific conditions are then tracked at each unique location. Joseph says this method scientifically demonstrates the nature of significant variation in the field. He adds that, accordingly, as the variation is measured in such detail, the management action can be constructed to continuously respond to such variation.

The science, Joseph says, moves from whole field applications to site-specific measurement. The technology is then developed and adjusted to accommodate the science.

Joseph says the agriculture industry has “a long way to go with the precision farming process.” But, he says that’s exciting. The future of agriculture is just beginning.

You can listen to Joseph’s incredibly detailed explanation here:
Dr. Joseph Berry speaks about his ideas on the science behind precision agriculture.

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