With his iPad or smartphone, manager Rod Weimer of Fagerberg Produce – which is one of the largest onion producers in the country – can control his farm’s water and fertilizer usage from anywhere in the world.
More impressive, since investing in a high-tech, subsurface, drip irrigation system, the family- owned onion farm in Eaton cut water use by 30 percent and nitrogen fertilizer use as much as 40 percent – and increased the amount of onions produced. “The water savings alone are tremendous, but so is the biological effect of its use,” Weimer says. “Everything you put into the drip irrigation is actually used by the plant. Nothing runs off. Nothing contaminates streams.”
Advancements in ag technology have created enormous environmental benefits, largely in the reduced use of resources, says Dr. Greg Graff, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Today, Colorado farmers use less water, soil and fertilizer than ever. “The technological improvements in agriculture over the last half century – of which Colorado farmers and agribusinesses are at the forefront – have doubled our production capacity while using the same amount of resources,” Graff says. “In other words, if we had not achieved these improvements, we would need two Earths to feed the current population. But, instead, we’re able to do it with just one.”
Farmers at the Helm
Graff says farmers throughout Colorado adopt precision agriculture concepts to tailor cropping choices and reduce overuse of seed, pesticides, and fertilizer. They apply new soil additive strategies to boost soil microbiology and health. Even genetic engineering can be used to improve pest and disease control, crop moisture deficiencies, and food quality. Graff sees more agricultural advancements to come with fully autonomous tractors, genetic editing and more intelligent drones.
“In the last three years, the United States has seen unprecedented levels of venture capital investment into ag technology, and it’s happening globally,” he says. “Colorado has a big opportunity, and we’re one of the players.”
In fact, Boulder-based startup Agribotix serves customers in more than 45 countries with its ag-specific drones. The unmanned aerial vehicle flies over a field in a lawn-mower pattern while taking photographs every few seconds, says Paul Hoff, chief operating officer. The company’s software then stitches the images together for a clear picture of plant health across an entire field, not just a small percentage of a field that a farmer inspects.
Drones already help farmers identify problems, quantify them and take action before a water or fertilizer deficiency or pest problem hurts yield. Agribotix anticipates that future drones will show how effectively plants use water and will use artificial intelligence, such as the ability to identify weeds the way humans do.
“Drones are computers in the sky, basically,” Hoff says. “When personal computers first came out, they could do a small number of things. As people think of different ways to use computers, they are able to change the way things work. When you buy a drone today, it allows programmers to put their own smarts on it.”
At Fagerberg Produce, Weimer predicts its modern irrigation system may get smarter.
The farm’s underground drip irrigation tape was installed using the global positioning system, or GPS, and a high- accuracy signal that allows Weimer to locate the subsurface dripline within centimeters. In 2017, the onion farm planned to use new sensors to detect soil moisture 2 inches to 48 inches deep at GPS-sited locations. The irrigation system reacts to the site-specific information, and Weimer anticipates even greater water savings.
“Technology has come a long way in agriculture, and it’s fun farming nowadays because there is so much new stuff that we are learning and doing,” Weimer says. “Every year, we’re changing something and adding something to make it more efficient. You have to be open-minded, willing to go with the times and make it better for our environment.”