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Farm Poll Examines Farmers' Use and Opinions of Precision Agriculture

By J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr.

One of the biggest keys to farm profitability is being efficient. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to improve yields while managing their inputs, and one of the ways they’ve done this for the past several years is by using precision agriculture.

Although this term can be defined many ways, the United States Department of Agriculture calls it a suite of technologies that can reduce input costs by providing the farm operator with detailed spatial information, that can be used to optimize field management practices.

In essence, it's producing more with less. But precision agriculture is a diverse field, and farmers approach it differently.

To better understand farmers’ use and opinions of precision agriculture, the 2022 Iowa Farm Poll asked questions about specific types of precision ag. The report, authored by extension sociologist J. Arbuckle, rural sociology graduate student Joe Hollis, and assistant professor of rural sociology Katie Dentzman, examines farmers’ use of precision agriculture, their views on potential benefits, as well as their concerns about potential downsides.

According to the poll, 66% of responding farmers said they use global positioning system yield monitors or maps, followed by 56% who use GPS guidance systems, such as autosteer, and 56% who said they use variable rate equipment such as sprayers and fertilizer equipment.

On the other hand, some technologies, like use of data from online decision tools, show less usage currently, but a strong likelihood of being adopted in the future. In 2021, 30% of farmers said they used this technology, while 21% said they plan to do so within the next three years and 25% said they are open to the technology in the future.

“We know that farmers have been using precision agriculture for some time, but what we have not always known is which types, to what extent and what the barriers to adoption may be,” said J. Arbuckle, rural sociologist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and lead author.

Trends among farmers

The survey of nearly 1,000 farmers measures the practices farmers are already using and the practices they intend to use in the future.

According to Arbuckle, adopting new technology is a process that starts with farmers knowing that it exists and then forming favorable opinions that lead to adoption.

“First, a farmer has to be aware of the technology, then consider the potential pros and cons of use, and then based on results of their research, form an intention to try it,” he said.

The survey results indicated that many of the farmers who were not using different precision agriculture technologies were open to use or actually intended to try them in the near future. Farmers were especially interested in adopting drones and on-farm sensor technology, as well as data from online decision tools.

According to the results, 18% of farmers plan to use drones within the next three years, while 29% are not planning to use drones but are open to using them down the road.

Benefits and barriers

The survey also asked farmers about potential benefits and downsides of precision technologies. While most farmers agreed or strongly agreed that precision agriculture could increase efficiency related to inputs, and nearly 80% agreed that the same technology could increase yields for individual crops, there is still a wide range of opinions about some aspects of precision technology.

More than half of farmers expressed concern over what their data might be used for, with 52% concerned their data could be used for regulatory purposes, and 41% concerned corporations would use the data for their own benefit, and not for farmers.

More than 70% were concerned that precision agriculture would lead to fewer and larger farms.

While concerns remain, co-author Dentzman said this information about farmers’ openness to precision agriculture can be useful for private and public sector entities that work to help farmers increase productivity while minimizing environmental impacts.

“Farmers see many benefits from precision agriculture, but they have important concerns as well,” said Dentzman. “This is useful information not only for farmers, but for those who are researching and developing the future of precision agriculture.”

About the poll

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll survey is conducted by Iowa State University Extension Sociology, in partnership with Iowa State’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology. It is supported by ISU Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.

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