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My first experience of precision farming was almost 22 years ago this spring. I’m talking vegetables here — not corn, wheat, or soy beans – but the lesson I learned in my vegetable garden is totally relevant to the problems facing crop farmers trying to get more yield from their fields, with the help of improved products and “prescriptions” from their suppliers about how to use the products.

Twenty-two years ago my husband and I moved to southeastern Pennsylvania into a rural township where competition for the biggest and best vegetable garden is one of the main forms of entertainment. These gardens, easily as large as the lots of most suburban homes, feed local families for the year with fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables. Tomatoes, sweet corn, potatoes, and cabbage are the mainstays of these gardens. My story is about sweet corn, practically the Pennsylvania state vegetable.

We rototilled our first garden in Pennsylvania the day we moved in, May 25, 1993. We thought we were really smart to plant a variety of sweet corn from a local seed company, Rohrer’s, instead of the type of corn we had planted in our previous gardens in Iowa and Massachusetts.

July rolled around, and all our neighbors started picking huge ears of sweet corn by July 4. Our corn patch was spotty, with gaps where seeds had not germinated, and we picked our small ears sometime in early August. This was a matter of some shame for my husband, the vegetable gardener, who was used to growing country-fair-winning vegetables. He was being beaten out by a bunch of farm women, gardening being women’s work in this area.

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Fast forward a year down the road. It’s May again and we are now pretty good friends with our neighbors, including Susie Fisher, who is known throughout the township for having the earliest tomatoes, the sweetest corn, and the biggest cabbage. Susie came by one evening with a little bag of corn seeds coated with a red powder and suggested that we try this seed. Swallowing his pride, my husband planted it. When July 4 arrived, we had even rows of corn plants with almost ripe ears. There were fewer gaps in the rows than the previous year, but the individual ears were still small, about half the size of Susie’s corn.

What happened here? Different variety of corn, obviously, one that grows better in the clay of our creek bottom fields. Also, a seed treatment – the red powder coating the seeds – a fungicide that took care of whatever fungus attacks corn seed in our damp, clay soil. But our yield was still nothing like Susie’s, who had frozen enough corn to feed an army for a year.

Next year, ever the optimist, my husband bought the seeds Susie suggested and rototilled the garden at the same time all the neighbors did – timing for the right soil temperature and moisture being crucial to planting for the best yield. He figured he had it made this time – same corn, same seed treatment, same soil, same weather, same time of planting. Ah, but he was wrong. Same results as the year before. Upstanding corn that ripened for the critical 4th of July weekend but that yielded small ears.

At this point, my husband had totally lost face, and I was suggesting that we just buy our sweet corn from the local farm stand. But Susie, who is better than any local agronomist, came to the rescue again. She was reluctant to tell my husband what he was doing wrong, but she told me to tell him that his problem was seed spacing. According to Susie, he was planting his seeds too close together with too little row spacing. She recommended increasing the seed
spacing  to 8 inches and planting two seeds together every 8 inches, 1 1/2 inches deep, with rows about 2 feet apart.

July 4 arrived and with it the best sweet corn we have ever grown –ears that were almost a foot long and fat with sweet kernels. I estimate we easily doubled the yield of our corn patch by following Suzie’s planting advice.

Translate these results to corn fields measured in acres rather than feet and you will understand the impact of precision farming “prescriptions”. But imagine that all of these big corn fields are made up of small patches not much different from our vegetable garden, where soil characteristics, weather microclimates, insect pests and previous land usage vary in ways that affect yield. The challenges of collecting all this data and analyzing it to provide customized advice to farmers are huge – one of the biggest “big data” problems around – and one that the SAP/F4F Precision Agriculture initiative is trying to solve.

If you are interested in this topic, consider joining us at our Precision Agriculture Summit this February.

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