Straight lines are a big deal in agriculture. Everyone has seen the perfectly straight rows of trees in an orchard, or crops in a field. These straight lines enable hundreds of tasks to be done mechanically, with tractors and equipment, instead by of hand. For centuries, making perfectly straight lines was a fairly high-level skill. On a small scale, builders would spend numerous hours “squaring” the lines for their construction project. On a much larger scale, surveyors used specialized tools to mark out boundaries of properties, roads and cities. Farmers would spend hours marking straight lines in their field; laying out an orchard or vineyard might take weeks to ensure the tree rows were both straight and square.
When Global Positioning System technology first became available, farmers were among the first to see a huge opportunity. With a handheld GPS surveying tool, you could quickly and easily mark out straight rows in your fields. But tech entrepreneurs saw an even bigger opportunity: tractor-mounted GPS systems that would allow for highly accurate navigation down to a centimeter. The term they came up for this was “precision agriculture”.
Thirty years later, it’s hard to overstate the importance that high-accuracy GPS plays now in agriculture. It has allowed farmers to do things they could only dream about before, with a confidence that was never possible. But precision farming has also allowed farmers to better conserve resources: reducing the amount of diesel and seed they use, cultivating crops more accurately, spraying fewer pesticides, and of course saving time. It has vastly reduced the carbon footprint of agriculture.
In California, GPS has allowed farmers to bury miles of drip tubing in their fields with astonishing accuracy, and then conduct all their field work over the top of it without damage. Because the soil surface remains almost entirely dry, there is no evaporation of the water, and the majority of it is delivered directly to the roots of the crop plant — saving an enormous amount of water.
But precision GPS requires more than just a phone with a cell signal. The GPS in your car or on your phone knows where you are within a margin of error of about 10 feet. That’s not much help in agriculture. The ag GPS companies created a system that triangulates the satellite signal through a system of terrestrial “base stations” that they owned and controlled access to. A “budget” system with 6-8″ of accuracy cost around $5000 per tractor. The “premium” system with “sub-inch” accuracy cost $20,000 to purchase. For another $10,000 or more, you could get an “autosteer” system for your tractor that would allow the GPS to assist in steering. To access the critical base stations, it cost another $5-10,000 per year…for each tractor you were using.
For large farms with thousands of acres, these high prices were justified by the savings. But smaller farms like Terra Firma don’t have the scale to justify the expense, despite the potential benefits.
Most technologies become more affordable over time, but not Ag GPS. The handful of companies producing “precision agriculture” equipment created a “walled garden” and have kept their prices high for thirty years. But cracks eventually started appearing in the wall. State governments, who also rely on high-accuracy GPS, developed a network of base stations around the country that are available for anyone to acces — for free.
Potential “disruptors” began to see opportunities to expand the market by lowering the barriers to entry. A farmer in Nebraska, frustrated with the annual fees he was paying, developed an Android app that allowed anyone with a cell phone and a data connection to access the publicly owned network of base stations. Farmers in vast stretches of the country could now abandon the annual fees for GPS, saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.
I started using this system — the Android app plus an old GPS antenna and guidance system (which looks like a PC computer screen) I purchased used on Ebay, in 2014. My tech skills are probably above average for a farmer, but I found the system pretty challenging to set up and use — too complicated for most TFF employees to operate. The cab of the tractor that I use it with has half a dozen wires running to and from the equipment, and the app requires the user to understand a dozen obscure GPS acronyms. Still, it greatly improved our ability to make our fields straight and square, in far less time.
The more I used the GPS, the more I thought “this should not be so complicated”. And the more I read and learned, the more obvious it became that the Ag GPS companies had intentionally made it more complicated than it needed to be, in order to protect their profits. So I was thrilled to discover this week that someone had started a crowdfunded campaign to create a 21st century solution. The result: A company called “FieldBee” in the Netherlands has developed an affordable cloud-based software program that runs entirely off a phone or tablet. The only hardware to purchase is a GPS antenna that costs a fraction of what the big Ag GPS companies charge, and the subscription for the service is more in line with what you would expect to pay for any other premium phone app. I ordered the system yesterday and am very excited to give it a try.
Small farms in the U.S. have generally been excluded — most often financially — from the benefits of many of the agricultural technologies that have been developed in the last 100 years. The 21st century is no exception, as farming robots with million dollar price tags are currently being implemented for tasks like picking strawberries and weeding. I can only hope that crowd-funding, open-source software and other equitable solutions will help make some of these solutions available to farms like Terra Firma. We need all the help we can get!