Originally created 04/18/99

Farmers harvesting technology's goods



LENOX, Ga. -- Darvin Eason says he is a believer in precision farming, a new technology that can help growers' profits and the environment. To show his commitment, he digs into his wallet.

The south Georgia farm chemicals dealer has invested $100,000 over the past four years in computers, software and other technology allowing farmers to apply fertilizers and other chemicals in the precise amounts needed by each section of their fields.

So far, only 15 of his 175 customers have been willing to pay extra for the technology, making it a losing proposition for Mr. Eason. But he's so sold on it that he won't give up.

"I feel like my role is to help the farmers make a profit," Mr. Eason said.

"This technology is available to do it. It's in its infancy, but I believe it's the future of agriculture."

Mr. Eason's business, Lenox Ag, is one of two farm supply businesses and six farmers who test new technologies for the University of Georgia's National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory in Tifton.

The lab's mission is to find technological solutions to the economic and environmental challenges facing agriculture. Mr. Eason's role is to test the technology in the real world and convince farmers it's worth the investment.

Craig Kvien, director of the research laboratory, said the farmers and business owners who work with the lab are "entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in things that haven't been cooked and that may never be cooked."

"Certainly our entrepreneurs hope this gives them an edge in the future, but I think some of them understand that some of these ideas are going to end up in the red, instead of in the black," Mr. Kvien said.

Precision farming uses soil sampling, field mapping and yield monitors to determine a field's full potential.

The field is then divided into grids. Using computers and signals from a satellite, the farmer can vary the applications of fertilizers and pesticides based on the needs of each grid.

Under the old system, farmers applied chemicals at the same rate throughout a field.

"We've got to tweak this, but the technology is there to micromanage a field," said Mr. Eason.

Dana Betts, Mr. Eason's precision farming specialist, keeps a notebook on each farmer using the new technology, with detailed field maps and other information.

Lenox Ag workers blend fertilizers for the farmers and spread it on the fields from huge three-wheeled trucks.

In making the blends, the workers adjust the levels of phosphorous, lime, potash, nitrogen and other chemicals for each customer's fields.

The Tifton lab is now working on a way to let farmers create profit maps, with estimates of earnings for specific parts of the field.

Because of fertility or other problems, some fields are incapable of producing a crop profitably.