For the first time in history, Alabama’s principal crops represent a billion-dollar industry.

In fact, the combined value of the state’s principal crops — wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and peanuts — has increased almost 23 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At Auburn University, Max Runge, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist, cites a number of reasons for the improved fortunes.

He attributes part of the spike to extremely good 2012 yields among virtually all the major crops. Part of it stems from the fact that only the best land is now devoted to raising crops, with most of the marginal land having been removed within the last few decades, he says.

But he stresses that other factors have contributed too, including slow but steady advances in farming technologies, some old, others comparatively new.

“We’re benefitting from better crop genetics and better technology, such as precision agriculture — and with all of these improvements we’re also seeing increasing attention to detail.”

As a prime example of this enhanced attention to detail, Runge cites the near-pinpoint accuracy of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications secured through advances in precision farming technology, which, in addition to contributing to increased yields, has also secured producers substantial savings in operating costs.

Ample rainfall certainly helped too, Runge says, adding that the steady adoption of irrigation also is aiding yields.

“We’re seeing more irrigation adoption in the state, which is enhancing crop yields,” Runge says. “The timely application of moisture certainly makes a difference, especially with corn, which suffered terrible yield losses during the prolonged 2011 drought.”

But Runge says steady improvements in older, less conspicuous facets of production technology, such as no-till farming, crop scouting and soil testing, have helped too.

He says these improvements also underscore the enduring value of land-grant universities, particularly their research and Extension functions, in advancing the fortunes of production agriculture.

“It really is a reflection of what’s been done over many years, not only in terms of research, but also in how the practical value of this research has been extended so that producers can make use out of it,” he says.

Alabama Extension Director Gary Lemme, an agronomist by training, cites ramped up corn production as an example of how land-grant university research and Extension efforts have worked in tandem to drive these technological advances.