Straight lines don’t occur much in nature, but our current human civilization depends on them and agriculture is no exception.  From wheat to vegetables to trees, farmers grow crops in straight, orderly lines so they can better manage everything from planting to harvest.

If you’ve ever tried to make a straight line longer than a dozen feet or so, you probably know it’s not that easy.  Extending that straight line hundreds of feet or longer is not easy, and for hundreds of years, required special surveying tools.  When satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) technology first became available, agricultural interests jumped on the it:  finally, an easier way to make perfectly straight lines.

Standard GPS technology, the kind you have in your phone or call, is accurate down to a meter or two.  But that’s not sufficient for farmers — if you start out at one edge of a ten-acre field and lose even a foot or two of accuracy each time you drive back and forth, by the time you reach the other side of the field you may have lost an acre.

Achieving higher accuracy requires a type of triangulation — called Real Time Kinetic correction (RTK) — between the satellite, the moving vehicle, and a fixed terrestrial location broadcasting a signal to a GPS device in the vehicle.  During the early years of GPS adoption, a company called Trimble patented and designed a system to do this and marketed it to professional surveyors and farmers.  Eventually they licensed it to tractor companies who built it into their highest-end tractors.  It was a “lockbox” type system that required an annual subscription in addition to the GPS equipment.  While it was cost effective for large farmers and other users, it was not affordable for small farms like ours.

“Precision Agriculture”, as it has now become known, is the fundamental basis for most of the advances in farming of the last twenty years.  Two of them were particularly appealing to me.  First was high-accuracy tools for cultivating weeds that require very straight planting rows that are essentially impossible to achieve without GPS.  Second was the ability to reduce tillage operations by retaining the same planting beds for many years — a win-win-win-win system that saves time, money, fuel (and thus carbon emissions), and reduces damage to the soil.

In the twenty-teens, a group of farmers frustrated by the monopoly that Trimble held over access to what they saw as a public resource, succeeded in getting legislation passed that made all government-owned RTK base-stations available to the public free of charge.  There followed a number of Android apps that allowed the user to access the data while hacking into Trimble’s GPS equipment with an array of dongles, cables and Bluetooth.  We started using that system in 2015.  To say it was not “user friendly” is a massive understatement, but it did allow us to begin to dip our toes into Precision Agriculture.

Statistically speaking, there are hundreds of times more small farms in the world than large ones.  I kept my hopes alive that a startup tech company would recognize the potential market for a high-accuracy, low-cost GPS system.  In 2020, I saw a video for a system called Field Bee, designed and manufactured in Ukraine. It had a reasonably priced tractor-mounted controller and software that runs on an Android tablet or phone app with a low annual subscription fee.  Terra Firma was one of their first U.S. customers.  In 2022, they came also out with a hands-free system that allows the tractor to steer itself.  We started using that system last year.

In the grand scheme of agriculture, our adoption of this technology means we are now just 20 years behind instead of 40.  Last week, in the field across the street from us, a large tomato farmer used a robotic transplanter to plant 100 acres of tomatoes in less than two days with a couple of employees — a task that used to take most of a week for a dozen people.  And corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest now have tractors that are not just self-steering but entirely self-driving.  It’s hard to imagine either of those technologies ever becoming affordable for a farm our size, but who knows?