Journal of the NACAA
Volume 3, Issue 1 - July, 2010
2010 Status of Precision Agriculture in Alaska
- Brown, S.C., Mat-Su/Copper River District Agriculture Agent, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Precision Agriculture utilization in Alaska lags considerably behind the rest of the country and was practically non-existent before 2008. This is largely due to the cost of Precision Agriculture technology, lack of infrastructure and the relatively small size of a typical Alaskan farm. Also contributing to this is the isolation of Alaskan farmers from trade shows and demonstrations of new implements. This began to change when the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service decided to promote the use of Precision Agriculture and Precision Agriculture techniques to Alaskan farmers. Workshops on Precision Agriculture were conducted around the state and at agricultural conferences. Opinion leading farmers were recruited to help with Extension's efforts. During the summer of 2008 Alaska's first Precision Agriculture Demonstration Day was conducted. In 2009 the state's first GPS Cooperative was formed. By 2010 three forms of Precision Agriculture had been adopted. They are manual lightbar guidance, RTK (Real Time Kinematik) automatic guidance and precision soil modeling for the production of fertilizer prescriptions.
Compared with the rest of the United States, agriculture in Alaska is quite small with fewer than 26,000 acres under cultivation in 2009 (USDA, 2010). The reasons for this include geographical remoteness, high shipping costs, low population numbers, brutally cold winters, generally poor soils and increasing urbanization. Despite commercial agriculture being small and facing challenges not found elsewhere, it is healthy. Extremely long growing days, small disease/insect pressure and the strong historical roots of agriculture in Alaskan identity account for this. Still, in many respects, Alaskan agriculture lags 10-40 years behind the rest of the country (Smeenk, 2010). The state's late and low utilization of Precision Agriculture technologies and techniques is reflective of this. Prior to 2008, one Alaskan sod farm in the Mat-Su Valley was using a lightbar guidance system and a Soil and Water Conservation District in the Delta Junction region was making available to its members a portable laptop computer based guidance system (Jahns, 2010 and Kaspari, 2010). Prior to 2008, no RTK (Real Time Kinematic) guidance systems were in use in Alaska. RTK is a much more precise guidance system (and more expensive) utilizing carrier phase positioning and a GPS reference station for obtaining centimeter-level accuracies (Trimble, 2007).
Extension's Outreach Efforts
According to Smeenk (2010), Precision Agriculture has been slow to catch on in Alaska for a number of reasons. The first reason is the relatively high cost of the technology. Although the cost of Precision Agriculture equipment has dropped dramatically relative to its utility, the high cost of shipping to Alaska and the lack of infrastructure tend to cancel out the decreasing cost elsewhere. Compounding cost issues is the relatively small average field acreage of Alaskan farms. A 500-acre vegetable farm would be considered a very large operation. This can be seen in the cash receipts for Alaskan crop production. In 2008 this amounted to only 9.5 million dollars (USDA, 2010). Finally, few Alaskan farmers have been exposed to the technology so they are not aware of its potential benefits for even small acreages.
Starting in 2007 the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service started a concerted effort to promote Precision Agriculture in Alaska. The areas that Extension chose to focus on were precision guidance, precision soil modeling and variable rate application. In February of 2008 the Cooperative Extension Service conducted its first series of workshops to increase awareness at its annual Potato/Vegetable Day Conference (Brown, 2008). This was followed that summer by the state's first-ever Precision Agriculture Demonstration Day. Participants toured a sod farm utilizing a Trimble brand lightbar guidance system and a vegetable farm that was the first to adopt a John Deere RTK guidance system with automatic steering. Approximately 15 farmers from the Mat-Su Valley region attended the event.
During the fall of 2008 an opinion leading farm operation was chosen to demonstrate precision soil sampling techniques utilizing the Global Positioning System grid sampling. The results of this sampling were presented at a fertilizer workshop at the 2009 Potato/Vegetable and Fruit Growers Conference (Brown, 2009). These outreach efforts were creating considerable interest in the technology. Unfortunately, perceived high costs still prohibited many farmers from Precision Agriculture adoption.
The Mat-Su GPS Cooperative
Although there was tremendous farmer interest in Precision Agriculture, there was a much greater market for this technology in the heavy construction and surveying industries. With the growth of heavy construction and mining operations utilizing precision guidance expected to be quite high, the Mat-Su School District had identified geospatial technology as a new major for its Career and Technical High School. As a result, the Mat-Su School District would be purchasing RTK surveying equipment for their students to learn with. Their RTK base station/beacon would be suitable for the precision guidance of heavy equipment as well as farm implements. Obviously, both the agricultural and heavy construction communities stood to benefit if a collaboration was developed.
It was decided the Mat-Su GPS Cooperative would be formed as a collaborative effort between the Cooperative Extension Service, the Mat-Su School District and the Mat-Su Borough to support all entities interested in utilizing an RTK correction beacon. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service would provide the technical expertise, the school district provided major funding and served as home to the base station/beacon and the Borough provided current GIS and remote sensing data. The Mat-Su GPS Cooperative would serve a dealer estimated eight mile radius around Palmer High School in Palmer, Alaska. The area the base station/beacon can serve is limited by signal strength, topography and accuracy degradation as distance from the base station increases. Even though this is a relatively small area, it would incorporate many of Alaska's largest potato and vegetable farms.
In the spring of 2009 Vanderweele Farms became the first farm to utilize the Mat-Su GPS Cooperative and saved approximately $15,000 in equipment costs by not having to purchase its own RTK base station (Brown, 2010a). In the first season of use the system was used for automatic guidance, precision row spacing and precision cultivation. Vanderweele Farms reported increased production due to more accurate row spacing. It is difficult to know exactly how much of a production increase was due to implementing precision guidance because 2009 experienced some of the best growing weather in Alaskan history. However, the Vanderweele Farms believes there was at least a 5% increase attributable to the technology. Interestingly, the greatest perceived benefit of utilizing this technology was not an increase in production, but the significant reduction of operator stress (Vanderweele, 2010).
The utilization of Precision Agriculture in Alaska will undoubtedly grow. For now it appears utilization of the technology will fall into three categories. The first will be lower precision lightbar manual guidance systems utilized by forage growers for spraying and fertilizing. The second category will be RTK guidance with automatic steering. The year 2011 will likely see the first use of variable rate technology for fertilizer application. Finally, precision soil nutrient modeling and the creation of fertilizer prescription maps may well grow to be the biggest application of Precision Agriculture in Alaska. While the use of variable rate application technology is not expected to be widespread, the small acreages commonly farmed easily lend themselves to the manual adjustment of fertilizer rates by "eyeballing" the zones from a printed map.
Manual adjustment of fertilizer rates through the use of printed maps may become a rather unique hybridization of Precision Agriculture in Alaska. Peony flower farms have shown particular interest in this method. Since their operations are typically less than 10-acres, these farms could lend them self well to such a technique.
Brown, S. C., 2010a. Precision Agriculture in Alaska, Proceedings of the 4th Annual Alaska Surveying and Mapping Conference, Anchorage, Alaska.
Brown, S. C., 2010b. Precision Soil Nutrient Modeling, Proceedings of the 2010 Produce Growers Conference, Palmer, Alaska.
Brown, S. C., 2009. Fertilizer Fundamentals Revisited, Proceedings of the 2009 Potato/Vegetable and Fruit Growers Conference, Palmer, Alaska.
Brown, S. C., 2008. Getting Started with Precision Agriculture, Proceedings of the 2008 Potato/Vegetable Day Conference, Palmer, Alaska.
Jahns, T., 2010. Kenai District Agriculture Agent, email correspondence, March 1, 2010.
Kaspari, P., 2010. Delta Junction District Agent, personal communication, March 11, 2010.
Smeenk, J., 2010. State Extension Horticulture Specialist, email correspondence, March 2, 2010.
Trimble, 2007. GPS The First Global Navigation Satellite System, Trimble Navigation Limited, Sunnyvale, California.
USDA, 2010. Alaska Agricultural Statistics 2009, Alaska Field Office, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Palmer, Alaska.
Vanderweele, R., 2010. Division of Agriculture Grant Recipient Report: Precision Agriculture, Proceedings of the 2010 Produce Growers Conference, Palmer, Alaska.