One of civilization’s most ancient occupations is hoeing a new row in the digital age.
Farmers for centuries checked their crops by picking up handfuls of soil, walking fields looking for insects or disease and watching the weather. Today, Clemson University researchers are working to create the Intelligent Farm. It will use computers, satellites, field sensors and cell towers to provide real-time information to improve decision-making and enhance farm prosperity, environmental sustainability and food security.
The goal of the Intelligent Farm is to provide the latest tools to growers and consultants, such as Clemson Extension agents and specialists, who can make better-informed decisions about where and how much water and fertilizer are needed.
Funded in part by the Clemson University Experiment Station with resources from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA and the state of South Carolina, Institute of Applied Ecology researchers expect to realize dramatic benefits. Previous research on targeted applications has shown a 15 percent savings of water and a 25 percent energy savings, leading to increased farm profits.
Nitrogen, an essential fertilizer, poses a special challenge. Industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer is costly to farmers and to the environment if overused. Sensor-based, site-specific application at variable rates can reduce nitrogen use by 47 percent — 75,200 tons — and save S.C. farmers $30 million, Intelligent Farm researchers say.
At the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, agriculture engineer Ahmad Khalilian leads the Intelligent Farm project. The Intelligent Farm is a spinoff from Clemson’s Intelligent River initiative. The National Science Foundation in 2011 awarded $3 million to Clemson to develop and deploy a network of sensors to monitor water quality of the Savannah River.
A pioneer in Clemson’s precision agriculture program, Khalilian developed the concept of variable-rate nematicide application based on soil type. Using global positioning systems (GPS) linked to soil electrical-conductivity meters, the technology enables farmers to apply nematicides only where needed. The destructive microscopic worms cause more than $300 million in cotton crop losses each year.
“We are creating a new office of the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Edisto research center, forging a innovative alliance between precision agriculture and the Intelligent River initiative,” said Gene Eidson, institute director and leader of the Intelligent River Research Enterprise, which explores novel and commercial ways to use the sensors and the network. Research is under way to adapt the technology to manage forests, monitor municipal rainstorm runoff and grow fresh fruits and vegetables on vertical farms in cities.
Together, Clemson’s Intelligent River initiative and its precision agriculture program also are funded by the NSF Major Research Instrumentation Program and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. These agencies are key partners, supporting technology development of real-time, remote data acquisition, along with other research and public outreach programs.
Research has driven many of the greatest agricultural advances in the last 100 years. Artificial fertilizers, mechanized equipment, improved crop varieties and agricultural engineering have fostered the global Green Revolution that has fed, clothed, sheltered and fueled the nation and the world.
However, there is growing concern that those advances cannot meet future food demand. Two trend lines — one representing the increasing world population and the other world crop yields — are expected to cross around 2050.