How the Original Conservationists Conserve Energy

Powered by the engineer and the ecosystem, modern agriculture is pursuing more efficient sustainable farming methods.
Jun 6, 2017 9:00 AM ET

The latest technologies in agriculture are becoming more connected and automated, classic techniques are seeing revival as best practices, and the emergence of software and data science are helping farmers conserve energy.

Self-Driving Tractors

Smarter Driving
Hands-free steering is driving farms to new levels of efficiency. On even the smallest of fields, the lay of the land is always changing. Assisted by sensors, monitors and mapping technology, the latest agricultural machinery can adapt to slopes, inclines, compaction zones, and uneven terrain. The most advanced models can even make adjustments down to the centimeter. With this level of precision, farmers can operate machinery in a more accurate and fuel efficient manner.

Optimal Inputs
When a sprayer, combine, or tractor has an integrated system of sensors, the farmer can receive recommendations on precisely how much fertilizer or seed to use. Precision once thought to be impossible is helping modern agriculture find the exact amount of resources needed, and not a drop more.

Reducing Human Error
Human error, often brought on by fatigue, can easily reduce the efficiency of operating heavy machinery. Tractors and combines use GPS to move precisely across the field and avoid veering off course. This “automated path planning” maps out the most efficient route, helping prevent the potential inefficiencies of manual operation.

Powered By The Sun
Being no stranger to the power of sunlight, innovative farmers are exploring the potential of solar energy. Operators are testing the application of solar irrigation pumps, a system historically powered by grid-electricity or propane gas. Another innovative use of technology in agriculture can be found in the dried fruit industry where some producers are rejuvenating a long established practice: sun drying. Meticulously engineered, “solar collectors” naturally attract the heat of the sun and use this warmth to withdraw moisture and create sundried fruit. In some parts of the U.S., farmers are even renting land to utility companies—allowing the installation of solar arrays, wind turbines, and other sources of renewable energy.

Software & Data

Complex weather simulators, data from satellites, and genetic sequencing help farmers seamlessly adapt to a variety of circumstances.

Computing Clouds in the Cloud
Between measurements collected from sub-orbital satellites, local forecasts, on-farm sensors, and weather stations—the prototypical farmer has access to oceans of weather data. Software creating models and simulations provide hyper-localized hourly forecasts. Even in the midst of erratic weather patterns that compromise productivity, farmers can use data-driven software to better time irrigation and apply fertilizer in a productive and energy-efficient manner.

Localized, Customized, and Data-Driven Seeds
For crops like corn, data science and advanced software has allowed researchers to develop a more intimate understanding of their genetic code. In turn, seed companies can use this knowledge to breed varieties with the local environment in mind. Down to specific counties or regions, a seed advisor can synthesize this data and forecast crop performance. When farmers grow crops made to thrive in the local climate, this can lead to using less—less  land, water, and energy.

Efficiency in the Earth
Soil health is the linchpin of energy conservation. Regardless of crop or climate, a sizable portion of a farmer's resources—natural or otherwise—are deposited into the ground. Along with being a farmer’s most precious asset, topsoil is key to ensuring a smaller carbon footprint.

Crop Rotation
Every plant consumes certain nutrients in the soil. From one growing season to the next, farmers can maintain a balance of soil nutrients. This process of rotation complements the soil by replacing important elements like nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium. Farmers are uniquely aware that soil devoid of nutrition is costly in dollars and emissions.

Cover Crops
To keep nutrients stored in the ground, some crops are planted between growing seasons to serve as a literal blanket for the topsoil. These cover crops prevent water evaporation, reduce soil erosion, and rebalance nitrogen levels. Addressing these issues typically requires irrigation or fertilizer, both of which require some level of diesel fuel or electricity. As a result, cover crops secure more water and nitrogen in the ground, they can help farmers use less energy and create fewer related emissions.

Conservation Tillage
Every harvest leaves behind remnants of the previous season—stalks, leaves, stems, etc. When farmers have the ability to reduce or refrain from tilling this biomass into their fields, the soil experiences many benefits.  Minimizing soil disturbance helps keep carbon in the soil, adds precious organic matter, and ultimately leads to starting up heavy machinery and burning fossil fuels less often.

A World of Solutions
Building a low-carbon future requires more than a single idea, technology, or practice. Leading minds in modern agriculture continue to discover the value of a holistic approach. Empowered by the knowledge of the natural world, the principles of science and technology, and a desire for greater sustainability—modern agriculture is finding more ways to use less.

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