Farming and space technology aren't necessarily a match made in heaven, but one thing is virtually certain: Farmers in the future increasingly will look to the sky in their quest for economic viability.

It was a point driven home to Alabama Cooperative Extension System agents, along with a few of their counterparts from Clemson University, who were in north Alabama recently honing their precision farming skills — part of a three-day workshop, held in early May at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina. The training reflects a long-term Extension commitment to keep field staff abreast of advances in this changing technology.

Precision farming rejects the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to farming in favor of an entirely new approach — one that enables farmers to use orbiting satellites to apply chemicals and other inputs with pinpoint accuracy. The result is often radically reduced operating costs and big savings for producers at a time when these kinds of savings can mean the difference between profit and loss.

The emergence of precision farming and other new technologies within the last few years has presented organizations such as Extension with a set of special challenges. Much like medical doctors, Extension agents are now undergoing training regularly to keep one step ahead of the demands of farmers.

They have to. Otherwise, they run the risk of falling behind in a technology that already has been widely adopted by the farming community a theme stressed by Paul Mask at the workshop's opening session.

Mask, a former Extension agronomist who now serves as Extension's assistant director for agriculture, forestry and natural resources, played a major role spearheading the adoption of precision farming techniques by Alabama farmers more than a decade ago.

“Precision is becoming very commonplace,” Mask observed in a series of introductory remarks that kicked off the three-day workshop. “If agents don't have these skills, they're going to be perceived by farmers as not quite the professional they need to be.”

It was a point driven home to Mask several weeks ago while visiting a farmer who already was comfortable using the new technology.

“Just knowing about precision farming is no longer a guarantee that we're on the cutting edge,” he says. “This is knowledge farmers expect us to have in abundance, much like soil fertility skills.”

One of the biggest challenges associated with precision farming is understanding how all of the elements associated with the new technology can be merged into a seamless, workable crop system — a goal reflected throughout the three-day training.

The workshop was organized with the goal of exposing agents to virtually every facet of the new technology.

Topics included an extended discussion by John Fulton, an Auburn University biosystems engineering professor, on the hardware and software requirements associated with variable rate applications on the farm — factors, he said, “largely depend on the farmers' needs, what they're trying to do, and the level of technology they've implemented on their farms,” he says.

Ralph Bagwell, an Extension entomologist from Louisiana State University, discussed how precision farming techniques can be adapted to pest management problems, even with aerial insecticide applications.

Another LSU Extension expert, nematologist Charles Overstreet, discussed how the technology has been used to combat rootknot nematodes in cotton land in northeastern Louisiana.

The workshop concluded with a panel discussion about how precision farming techniques can be more widely adopted by farmers.