PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – When William Anderson harvests soybeans, he receives more from heaven than sunshine and God’s blessing.
He picks up signals from 24 satellites orbiting 10,900 miles above the earth. They help him to determine how much fertilizers and pesticides are needed in each section of a field.
Anderson, 57, of Somerset County, is one of a growing number of farmers in the United States who use satellites maintained by the Department of Defense to apply chemicals more efficiently.
He is one of only “a half-dozen or dozen” farmers in Maryland who use the Global Positioning Satellite system, said William Magette, a GPS specialist at the University of Maryland.
“It’s a relatively new technology here,” Magette said. “Most farmers have heard of it, but they have a wait-and-see attitude.”
The system was developed 20 years ago as a navigation aid for military personnel and was first used commercially in 1992. Anyone with the right equipment can pick up a signal.
Rental car companies have furnished cars with electronic maps that receive the satellites’ signals. Hikers have picked up signals on pocket-size receivers to help them find their way.
A pioneer of the satellites’ use on farms says the sale of related equipment – display monitors and sensors – has jumped from three in 1992 to about 2,000 in 1995.
“About 3 to 5 percent of all farmers in the U.S. are benefitting,” said Ron Olson, president of Top-Soil Testing Service. The Illinois-based agricultural consulting firm was one of the first to offer the technology to farmers who were already buying more traditional soil-testing services from it.
He said farmers who have the equipment use about 20 percent less fertilizers and pesticides.
Visually, a high-tech farm is almost indistinguishable from a traditional one. There are no satellite dishes on top of silos and no moon buggies taking soil samples.
The equipment consists mainly of a 20-inch antenna on top of a combine and a monitor – a small black box with a digital display – inside the driver’s cabin.
The antenna picks up signals from the satellites, which tell the monitor where on a field the combine is located. The measurement is accurate to within 3 to 5 feet.
The monitor is connected to a sensor measuring the amount of grain growing on any given plot of the field. This information is displayed and saved on an electronic card in the monitor.
The data on the card, transferred to a computer, are then combined with up to 50 measurements of soil quality for each 2.5- acre grid.
The information about those grids allows farmers to treat each area of a field with the appropriate amount of fertilizers and pesticides, rather than spraying the same amount of chemicals everywhere.
The result is a more efficient use of resources, saving farmers money and relieving stress on the environment, proponents say.
Olson said a start-up package with the display monitor, sensor and antenna costs between $5,000 and $7,000 to purchase.
For an initial soil sampling, businesses charge another $5,000 to $7,000 for each 1,000 acres. Samplings are typically taken every four years.
Some farmers also have controllers that automatically apply the appropriate amount of fertilizer for each plot of a field. Many farmers start out with the monitors and purchase controllers later because of the costs, Olson said.
A new truck equipped to control the fertilizer application costs about $250,000, he said. “Existing fertilizer trucks can be furnished for about $25,000,” he said.
When Anderson tried the new system in the spring of 1994, he was one of the first farmers on the East Coast to do so, said Olson. He said the technology has spread more quickly in the Midwest, where about 10 percent of all farmers now use it.
Anderson, who grows soybeans and corn on about 2,000 acres, said he purchased the equipment when others were still laughing about it.
“When I first saw a presentation about the system at a conference, nobody in the audience understood anything and nobody gave anything about it,” Anderson said. “But the more I thought about it, the better it sounded.”
He said he was convinced of the system’s benefits when he realized that it would not only improve his farming, but also reduce administrative work.
“The commercial pesticide license requires a lot of record- keeping, to the point where it is beyond the realm of a farmer. I would need one person just to keep up the records, like what pesticides I sprayed where and what direction the wind came from and so on. The GPS system records all that automatically,” he said.
Some Maryland farmers are hesitant to buy equipment when they are uncertain if the investment will pay off.
Roger Richardson, a soybean and corn farmer near Snow Hill, Md., said he might purchase the equipment “if we can get profits back into agriculture.
“You’ve got to have the money before you can spend it,” he said.
John Ellis, the owner of Three Springs Farms near Brandywine, Md., said the system is a valuable tool for cutting expenses and reducing pollution, but he also thinks the costs are prohibitive for many farmers. “It’s financially feasible on the Eastern Shore where people have larger plots of land,” he said. “Here [in Prince George’s County] the land is hilly and the fields are small. It’s not really a viable option.” -30-