Farming Takes On New Computer Technology

Satellites and electronic sensors start to replace present methods

THE tractor and plow will be agricultural history within the next couple of decades.

This is the prediction of Gary Krutz, a professor of agricultural engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. In place of the traditional tractor, Prof. Krutz and his colleagues say, will be new vehicles that use satellite navigation receivers, laser measuring devices, on-board computers, and electronic vision sensors to bring in the sheaves.

``Horse plows came and went. Steam engine machines came and went. Then the farm tractor came, and now the only place it's going is to the antique museum,'' Krutz says.

These new technologies will require farmers with different skills. Despite the advantages of the new vehicles, many traditional farmers may not easily give up their tractors and plows, says Howard Doster, associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue.

``Transition takes a long time.... The new technologies may not become popularized until either the farmer wears out or his machinery wears out,'' he says.

Mr. Doster adds: ``The conditions that drive the use of the new technologies can change quickly.''

One such driving force is environmental regulations. Win-win situation

Adopting these new technologies, says Don Willock, a former Indiana State director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conversation Service, ``is a win-win situation for farmers because of the economic and environmental savings.''

Mr. Willock, a farmer himself in Edwardsport, Ind., has used computers to test soil and forecast weather for the last 10 years.

Cutting costs is a big incentive to adopt new methods. ``Farming is big business and farmers are now purchasing new technology to reduce input costs,'' Krutz says.

Krutz's forecast for the future of farming:

* Although small garden tractors may be around for some time, farm tractors over 60 horse power will become obsolete. To reduce costs, one vehicle will soon take the place of both the tractor and combine harvester. (Currently, a combine costs $200,000, and a large tractor costs $100,000 to $200,000.)

* A satellite dish will be attached to farm machinery to receive ``global positioning information'' - a precise location of the machine. Application of chemicals or seed could be customized for sections of the farmer's field that are as small as a few square inches. (The satellite network for this technique is already in place.)

* Machinery that moves through a field will be able to test soil conditions. For example, lasers will determine organic content and soil moisture. Other sensors will determine the chemical makeup of the soil. And microphones will be used to determine soil texture by listening to the sound the soil makes as it passes over the shank.

* Instead of plowing their fields, farmers will plant seeds amidst the stubble of past harvests.

In 1991, farmers employed no-till farming on 7.3 percent of the acres farmed in the United States. The method slows soil erosion and compaction, saves energy, and reduces weed growth.

* Farm implements will be pushed, not pulled, through the fields. ``To be accurate to a few inches, you need to push the planter to maintain control,'' Krutz says. ``Pulling it allows it to move too much as you go over rough terrain.''

The difficulty, Krutz says, is developing a linkage that will allow precise control while moving over the bumps in the fields.

* Farm machinery will be designed to reduce soil compaction. This may be accomplished by using a 40- to 60-foot-wide planter, instead of the 15-to-20-foot planters that are common today. It also may mean that tank-like treads are used instead of tires.

``The farmer will use the same path through the field year after year, which will reduce soil compaction,'' Krutz says. Crop yields are lower on compacted soil.

* Farm machinery may come with devices to annihilate weeds. This would reduce pesticide use. An electronic vision sensor, for example, would spot the weeds, and an air-jet would cut them down. Electronic `spies'

* Information about crop conditions will be sent from electronic ``spies'' in the fields to computers on farm machinery. This sensor will have a special surface that attracts insects, so that the type and number can be counted. A vision sensor will measure the crop moisture stress level, nutrient deficiency by looking at the color of the crop, and insect levels.

``The main farm vehicle's computer will use this information when planting or spraying crops,'' Krutz says.

* The agricultural vehicle of the next decade will still require an operator behind the wheel to steer. Inventing an automated system would too costly for farmers, Krutz says.

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