The deepest insight Paul Mask ever gained into the value of precision farming occurred more than a generation ago, years before the term became commonplace in agriculture.

A fiercely determined and, as events later proved, farsighted central Alabama dairy producer had worked out a strategy for managing fertilizer application costs.

Using a Soil Conservation Service map, the dairyman divided all the small fields he farmed into sections and then soil tested each of them, basing his fertilizer applications on what was revealed by each test, recalls Mask, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System assistant director for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources and an Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

As Mask recalls, this dairyman, years ahead of his time, had learned to “use mapping and soil testing to gain a clear picture of his farming operation.”

Despite all the changes that have occurred in precision farming — despite all of the huge strides that have been posted within the last couple of decades — ask still believes this persevering dairyman’s innovative insight still supplies the governing principle for the adoption and use of this technology.

That, as Mask sees it, is the essence — and the promise — of precision farming: using technology to gain a clear and comprehensive picture of one’s farming operations to secure the highest measure of farm efficiency and profitability by reducing input usage, insulating against risk and enhancing sustainable farming practices.

“That’s always been the challenge,” Mask says. “To me, it’s never been about adopting individual pieces of technology — rather, it’s about how the adoption of this technology leads to a change in mindset.”

John Fulton, an Alabama Extension precision farming specialist and Auburn University associate professor of biosystems engineering who filled Mask’s shoes a decade ago after he assumed his current administrative position, sees the next challenge as helping producers become firmly anchored to this guiding principle.

“In the last decade we’ve made strides showing farmers how to use precision farming technologies to avoid over-application and increase efficiency,” Fulton says.

The next big challenge is helping producers acquire a comprehensive understanding of this technology and its wider uses.