Computers are a fact of modern life. Most of us deal with them directly or
indirectly every dayfrom using an automated teller machine at the bank,
to getting a computer-generated reminder to make an appointment with the dental
Agricultural researchers, like all scientists, have been using computers for
years. They use them to process data, as well as to control complex laboratory
equipment and to run complicated models.
Computers are also making a big impact on farming and ranching Computers
make precise control of machinery practical; they make record keeping easier;
and they make it possible for the farmer and rancher to run "what if"
scenarios so that different management decisions can be tried and their many
possible outcomes observed.
But farmers and ranchers, like all people, need to keep in mind that a
computer is simply a toolin many ways just a fancier shovelnot an
That's one of the dangers of computers. It is easy to fall into the trap of
automatically accepting as the best decision the option offered by the
computer. As with human communications, if you ask a computer the wrong
question, you are likely to get the wrong answer.
Computers can only incorporate facts and relationships that they are told to
include and consider. A computer is not capable of original thoughtat
least not yet.
As programs, equipment, and data get more complex as well as piled higher
and higher, it may become tempting to relinquish decision-making to the
machineletting decisions be made by defaultwithout really
understanding the choices and how the computer arrived at them.
Ideally, decision-making should remain in the farmer's and rancher's hands.
In the end, the human needs to examine possibilities and tell the computer what
choice to execute. The computer allows a person to explore more options in a
reasonable length of time and to keep better track of information.
Like all new technology, computers also give rise to new ethical and legal
For example, precision farming has led to the creation of many new
businesses providing services to analyze soil characteristics. When, individual
farmers contract with a company for specific services, who actually owns the
data? An analogy would be a patient who pays to find out if an arm or leg is
broken. The patient pays for the information, but who owns the x-ray? Can a
doctor use that x-ray for other purposes, such writing a book, without the
Can agricultural information be incorporated into larger databases without
the farmer's permission?
This question of who owns what information may become more important as
large data banks are built up for various regions. For example, couldor
shoulda local, state, or federal government be able to buy copies of data
from computer service firms in order to develop detailed pictures of
environmental conditions across a region? What about basing environmental
regulations on this information?
As with computers in general, agricultural computer hardware and software
are evolving very fast. New companies are starting up almost every day, more
complex software is becoming; available, and hardware with more capabilities
are coming on the market. Today there are farms with web pages and agricultural
Internet forums like Successful Farming@AgOnline, where agricultural computing
issues are major topics of electronic conversation.
Although computer-controlled equipment is becoming commonplace on farms and
more farmers are keeping their records on a PC instead of in the pocket of
their overalls, we are not likely to see completely remote farming any time
soon. No one is going to be able to sit in an office in Manhattan, New York,
and control combines harvesting wheat in Manhattan, Kansas.
No matter how copycatted the computers become, farmers will still have to
tend their soil and their crops.
Computers are just providing a way for each farmer to gather and juggle a
lot more information needed to arrive at management decisions.
Jan van Schilfgaarde
Associate Deputy Administrator
Natural Resources and Systems