Arkansas Farmers Find Apps, Wireless Essential to Agricultural Sector

Scott Matthews of Weiner couldn’t imagine farming without his technological tools by his side.

“I completely rely on the Internet for all my information,” said Matthews, 50, who farms 1,400 acres of rice and soy beans.

Technology ranging from Global Positioning Satellite devices in his tractors to weather applications on his smartphone and iPad have helped Matthews manage his crops and report a 10 to 15 increase in profit in 2012 over 2011.

Pinpointing exactly when farms began widespread adoption of wireless technology is difficult, but several agriculture experts pointed to the appearance about 10 years ago of GPS systems in tractors. Technology advancements also blossomed in 2007, when the first Apple iPhone was released, said Mike Hamilton, Poinsett County extension agent for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Hamilton and others said that determining how much money farmers are saving or earning with the new technology also is difficult. However, “I will tell you that anybody that’s looked at this new technology and using this new technology, … they certainly don’t want to go back to the way they were doing it,” Hamilton said.

For example, technology allows farmers to measure and use precisely the amount of water and fertilizer needed for crops.

“We’re better stewards of our environment because of technology, and you can’t put a price on that,” Hamilton said.

And more high-tech tools are being released.

In January, the UA’s Agriculture Division unveiled an app called Corn Advisor, designed to help corn producers by allowing them to tap into corn production information. The app is available for Android phones now, and iTunes is expected to start carrying it in the next few weeks, said Dharmendra Saraswat, extension engineer for the Agriculture Division, who helped create the app.

The technology shift also has helped AgRobotics Inc. of Little Rock. AgRobotics created the AutoProbe, a machine that tests a farmer’s soil and uses GPS technology to relay the information to farmers on what seed and fertilizer to use.

The company, which has been growing since its organizers won the 2006 Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup business plan competition, reported revenue of about $1.3 million in 2012, said President Jeff Burton. “We’re looking at 50 percent growth” this year, he said. “We’re seeing a ton of interest.”

In the last 12 months, he said, there’s been a strong push from all areas of agriculture to use technology for precision farming. Either farmers are embracing the new technology or “they’re retiring,” Burton said.

The Power of GPS

Matthews, the farmer from Weiner, has been farming since 1990. He said that about 10 years ago, he was one of the first farmers in the area to buy a tractor with GPS.

“Back then, people would scratch their heads,” he said. “Now everyone has it.”

The GPS in the tractor has “been a tremendous benefit,” because it steers the tractor in a straight line for planting and harvesting, which saves fuel and seeds, Matthews said.

And Matthews doesn’t have to hire a driver to operate the machine because it’s controlled by the GPS technology. He said that nearly anyone could slide into the driver’s seat of the tractor “in those crucial crunch times when you need that extra driver and you may not be able to find one.”

Using GPS technology, the tractor can even be operated at night. “We’re able to plant just as good at midnight as we were at 12 noon,” Matthews said.

Water Testing

One of the emerging technologies is soil moisture testing equipment, said Zach Hunnicutt of Giltner, Neb., the chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee.

He uses a system from Monsanto of St. Louis. Monsanto’s Aqua View system uses probes installed 3 feet into the soil that test the water levels through the day. The data collected tell the farmer if the crops need to be watered.

The system “shows us how to time our irrigations better,” Hunnicutt said.

Hunnicutt said the monitors cost him about $1,500 apiece, but the money saved in water use more than makes up for the cost.

Monsanto’s website says that Aqua View customers reported an average saving of 3 acre-inches of water in 2010, equal to 8.4 billion gallons. That was enough water to fill nearly 13,000 Olympic swimming pools, the company says.

Hunnicutt said soil moisture testing systems are becoming more widespread.

“There’s twice as many around as there were last year,” he said. “It’s a pretty easy thing to convince somebody to do it.”

There’s an App for That

The cameras on smartphones and iPhones have proven to be useful, said Hamilton, the extension agent. “The photo qualities are amazing.”

Texting photos of insects or diseased crops to the extension agent saves farmers travel time and the diagnosis is faster, Hamilton said.

Smartphone apps also allow farmers to better monitor the weather, Hamilton said.

“There’s some apps that will give you estimates of how much rainfall we’re going to get in a given amount of time,” he said.

Saraswat, of the UA’s Agriculture Division, said he helped develop the Corn Advisor app to help farmers in Arkansas, where interest in corn production has blossomed. “There were several first-time producers who were producing other crops, but they wanted to try their hand at corn,” Saraswat said.

He said the extension agents couldn’t help the producers as fast as they wanted to, so the idea of the app was born.

With the Corn Advisor, a corn producer can quickly search for corn-related issues or information, such as ways to identify nutrient deficiency symptoms using photos.

Saraswat said determining how much money farmers can save by using apps like Corn Advisors and others is hard. However, information provided by the apps allows farmers to make quick adjustments, potentially averting disaster.

“Time is essential whenever it comes to agriculture,” Saraswat said.