Local farmers, researchers and business owners got to examine unmanned aerial vehicles, high-resolution cameras, electrical conductivity readers and the software that runs them at the University of Idaho's Parker Farm.
As farming strives for efficiency through precision, it gets more high-tech each year.
Robert Blair, a fourth-generation grower from Kendrick who was named the Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year in 2009, told attendees he has been using precision agriculture methods since 2003.
Blair has a small UAV — most people call them drones — equipped with a camera he is able to fly over his fields to track trends or disturbances, he said. With a high-resolution camera, it is able to pick up drying patterns, pest infestations, weed patches or other damage, such as from animals.
"As a farmer, we love our toys and it looks like a toy, but it is a powerful tool," Blair told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (http://bit.ly/UhywHV)
The basic vehicle with an attached camera, fully assembled, can range from $1,300 to $1,500, while a UI-owned UAV with an attached camera ranges from $1,500 to $1,800, he said. The UI UAV on display though, because of FAA regulations, cannot be flown for research purposes yet, Shrestha said.
The demonstration day, which presented a range of technologies farmers can use in their field treatment strategies, was sponsored by Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture in collaboration with researchers from Site-specific Climate-friendly Farming, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Washington State University, Oregon State University and the UI.
"Precision agriculture is a management strategy," Dev Shrestha, associate professor at the UI, said during a demonstration on remote sensing.
It allows farmers to treat and plant their fields more accurately to produce better yields by determining what each small area specifically needs, said Kristy Borrelli, REACCHPNA extension specialist.
The fields in the Palouse are all different, with large rolling hills and varying soil makeup throughout, Shrestha said. The information needed is out there in the fields, but if precision agriculture is not being practiced that information is never being used, he said.
Precision agriculture can also be referred to as site-specific management. If one area of a field, for example, requires more fertilizer than another to produce a good yield, that is recognized and fertilizer is applied accordingly.
Traditional farming uses a generalized fertilizer guide to produce certain yields, resulting in over or under fertilizing in some places, Borrelli said. Through precision agriculture methods, growers are able to save resources and money, she said.
The learning curve on precision agriculture methods is very steep, though, Borrelli said.
"When growers are presented with it, it can be very overwhelming," she said.
The demonstration day aimed to show local growers there are simple steps they can take to begin in the site-specific strategy.
Also displayed was a $10,000 to $20,000 device to measure electrical conductivity in the soil, which can help farmers determine moisture content among other things, said Robert Heinse, associate professor at the University of Idaho.
"This one instrument isn't going to tell you everything you need to know," he said. "It's a piece to the puzzle."
Once the equipment collects the data it can create a map of the field that will tell a grower which areas contain more moisture, helping them better determine how to treat that area.
The equipment can be walked, pulled behind a vehicle or even attached to a UAV and flown over the field to collect the data, Heinse said.
Farmers who wants to get started should get a yield monitor and start collecting the data, Blair said. His small UAV is a very good introduction, he added.
So is a basic scouting camera mounted on top of a pole and set to take a picture every day, UI graduate student Troy Magney said. It can track trends and patterns in fields for roughly $120.
The REACCHPNA website, reacchpna.org, has a program that allows farmers to input the boundaries of their fields and get a rough idea of how much money they could potentially save through precision agriculture methods, Shrestha said.