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Idaho grower featured in Smithsonian 'Precision Farming' exhibit

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Robert Blair’s North Idaho farm is one of four farming operations around the country that are being featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History during 2018.

The operations’ use of modern technology is highlighted in a “Precision Farming” display within the Washington, D.C., museum’s “American Enterprise” exhibition.

U.S. farmers already know how technology has and is changing agriculture, but the average American has no clue and Blair is one of the farmers the museum is using to provide people a glimpse of how technology is changing agriculture in the United States.

The museum is marking 2018 as the Year of the Tractor and the Precision Farming display within the museum’s American Enterprise exhibition helps tell agriculture’s story to Americans, many of whom have no idea about how modern agriculture works, said Peter Liebhold, the museum’s agriculture curator.

A green, yellow and red 1918 Waterloo Boy tractor is at the entrance of the American Enterprise exhibition and it highlights the introduction of lightweight gasoline-powered tractors, which, according to a Smithsonian news release, began “a major revolution in agriculture that moved farming firmly into the realm of commercial production.”

The Precision Farming display helps people understand how farmers have adapted to technology – location-tracking technology such as GPS, drones, moisture content measurement, crop yield monitors, variable rate application of seed, water and fertilizer, etc. – that is changing agricultural practices in fundamental ways, Liebhold said.

Featuring the faces and practices of real farmers helps demonstrate that, he said.

“We want them to know what real farmers are doing,” Liebhold said. “As fewer Americans have a connection to farming, many of them have no idea what’s going on. A lot of Americans don’t even know what a farm looks like. We pull back the curtain and show them what’s really going on.”

The Precision Farming display features Blair’s use of drones, GPS equipment, crop yield monitors and other devices “to create a new way of seeing and managing his fields.

Blair, who was an early adopter of this technology and has helped pioneer the use of drones in the U.S., uses an unmanned aerial vehicle, known as a UAV or drone, to keep tabs on changing conditions in his fields.

“From a drone, Blair can take GPS-indexed near-infrared photos of plants in his fields,” the display states. “Using these colorful images, he can determine what areas need more nitrogen fertilizer, allowing Blair to save money and avoid environmentally harmful over-fertilization.”

Blair said it was a big honor to be included in the exhibit, “although now I have to hear a lot of jokes about me being a fossil and an antique.”

He said being included in the exhibit “is a validation of the time and effort I’ve put into this technology” and he credited groups such as Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and Idaho Grain Producers Association with helping him.

“I owe quite a bit to grain producers and Farm Bureau for opening doors,” he said. “You never make a journey by yourself. You always have some help along the way in some way, shape or form.”

Liebhold said most people who tour the exhibit, which opened in January, are astonished to learn how much technology is used by American farmers.

“The average American is absolutely amazed to find out how technical the business is,” he said.

The industrial revolution that tractors brought 100 years ago “is similar to the revolution farming is experiencing now as farmers are adopting GPS, computer analysis and other technology,” Liebhold said. “The new crop of the 21st Century is information.”

About 1.5 million people will visit the agricultural part of the exhibit this year, Liebhold said.

“It’s a pretty doggone good topic and one that all our visitors find interesting,” he said.

The Precision Farming display also features:

  • Iowa corn and soybean farmer Roy Bardole, an early adopter of precision farming. “GPS equipment, crop yield monitors and other devices turned his combine into an information control center,” the display states. “His combine has a yield monitor and a GPS receiver so that he can record exactly which portion of the field is most productive.”
  • The Burnetts, dairy farmers from Carpenter, Wyo. “At Burnett Enterprises … every cow wears a computer chip on its neck with a number,” the display states. “The computer records how much milk each cow produces at every milking. Animal health is critical in a dairy. The computer system allows the Burnetts to run reports on cows that are dropping in production, identify cows that need checking for health issues and find cows being milked in the incorrect pen.”
  • Zach and Anna Hunnicutt, who rely on center pivot irrigation systems to grow popcorn, soybean and wheat in Giltner, Neb. “Precision farming – the variable rate application of seed, water, fertilizer and pesticides – helps the Hunnicutts make their farming operations efficient and environmentally strong,” the display states. “Using soil moisture sensors and remotely actuated computerized sprinkler controls, their irrigation system conserves the amount of water needed to turn the dry Nebraska Great Plains into productive farm fields.”