On a drizzly afternoon at Ag Progress Days, Taylor Doebler could open his smartphone and check just how much rain was falling on his crops back home.
At another farm, an optics system on the field machinery could monitor how green the crops were, run that information through an algorithm and instantly apply the right amount of nutrients to the soil.
Technology like this is changing the way farmers do business — but the advancements don’t stop there. Something that’s harder to see — the very data farmers collect, from planting to harvesting — is being revolutionized by computers, experts said Tuesday during the opening day of festivities at Ag Progress Days.
The annual event, sponsored by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, features the latest on farming technology, research exhibits, educational programs and guided tours over the course of the three-day show.
Farmers have come a long way from the days when they used booklets and tablets to keep track of how their crops performed, said Doebler, one of several experts who gathered for a forum on the benefits and risks of data.
“And I’m not talking about tablets you turn on — tablets that you use with pencils,” said Doebler, who runs an 850-acre farm near Jersey Shore and owns T.A. Seeds, a seed supply and production business.
Agriculture now is at the brink of a revolution, thanks to the amount of data farmers can produce with technology — and what those numbers can tell about the best seeds, nutrient levels and livestock feeds to make farms even more productive, according to Dennis Larison, who moderated the forum.
“It’s all about data,” said Dean James, the manager for Cotner Farms in Danville.
James has been on the leading edge of farming technology for more than a decade. He’s been using computers to collect data since 1998 and can now take detailed information and maps tracking everything from soil types to fertilizer applications right into the fields on his cellphone.
The data can show, for example, just the right amount of nutrients that are needed, saving farmers from spending more by applying too much, and reducing the runoff that enters waterways.
“I can’t help but look back and just realize how things have evolved over the years,” said Don Hoover, president of Binkley & Hurst, a farm equipment dealership and technology service provider.
“When I was a kid on the farm, you ... compared yields year to year by the big wagon loads of corn or by how full the silo got this year or last year,” he said. “And today, we have virtual, real-time information for grain flowing through a combine or being able to literally check the rainfall falling on the fields as we speak.”
A data-driven approach can help farmers be more efficient, something that could be even more important in the coming decades, when the population is projected to increase steadily, said Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a Penn State trustee.
“By the year 2050, it’s predicted we are going to have to double food production,” Shaffer said. “It’s also predicted we’re going to have to do that on a smaller footprint. So we fully understand we need to develop new technologies and develop research to help us do that.”
But there are risks that come with that, he said.
As the information is aggregated and combined, becoming big data, and is sent to digital clouds, the question becomes who owns and controls it. Shaffer said there also are concerns about who could access the information and what risk farmers put themselves in by sharing the data.
“We want to make sure big data is as friendly as possible to farmers,” he said.