United States: The Farmer And The Data: How Wireless Technology Is Transforming Water Use In Agriculture

Last Updated: April 27 2016
Article by David L. Sunding, Martha Rogers and Coleman D. Bazelon

I. Introduction

Since the turn of the century, Americans' access and use of wireless technology has increased rapidly. Over the past ten years, wireless has transformed our society and industries across the economy.1 In 2015, 98 percent of Americans were able to receive 4G wireless coverage,2 and mobile data traffic grew by more than half.3 It's no surprise that farmers are also turning to wireless technologies.

Agriculture is a critical component of the U.S. economy – both in terms of output and in terms of natural resource use. The agricultural sector, however, accounts for a disproportionate share of U.S. natural resource use. In 2013, U.S. farms contributed $166.9 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product ("GDP"), or about one percent of total GDP, and supported many other industries – such as food service and food manufacturing.4 In contrast, over half of U.S. land is categorized as agricultural land and agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of the U.S.'s total consumptive water use.5 Despite agriculture's heavy reliance on water less than 10 percent of irrigated farms in the U.S. used advanced irrigation management techniques, such as those using wireless technology.6 Thus, wireless technology has the potential to not only help farmers more efficiently manage water use but to also add substantial value to the agricultural industry. This paper highlights the ways in which wireless technology can be used to more efficiently manage water use in U.S. agricultural production as well as the degree to which these technologies are yet to be adopted by U.S. farmers.

Farmers' access and use of mobile wireless technology has increased rapidly over the last few years. In 2013, 67 percent of U.S. farms had Internet access compared to just 51 percent in 2005, or a roughly 30 percent growth in Internet access.7 Accompanying that growth in access was an even larger increase in the use of cellular networks to access the Internet. Twenty-four percent of farms with Internet access used wireless as their primary method of accessing the Internet in 2013, compared to just three percent in 2005.8 In other words, in eight years there was over a 950 percent growth in the use of wireless technology amongst farms in the U.S. as their primary method of accessing the Internet.9 The use of wireless technology among farmers continues to rise, 29 percent of farms reported wireless as their primary method of accessing the Internet in 2015.10

The benefits of the adoption and use of wireless technology in U.S. agricultural production are large. Farming is an inherently risky business; farmers must deal with natural disasters, unpredictable variations in rain, and wide fluctuations in the price of commodities.11 Wireless technology can help mitigate these risks by providing farmers real-time access to weather and market conditions. Indeed, in 2007, researchers claimed new wireless agricultural technologies "show so much promise...that during the coming decade, wireless networks will offer the same type of quantum leap forward for farming that GPS provided during the past decade."12

That prediction is coming true. Today, farmers can use local wireless networks to access real-time information on the current conditions of their fields and the status and location of their equipment. Farmers can also use 3G and 4G networks on their smartphones or tablets to access real-time information on agricultural markets and their own farms remotely.

Wireless technologies are also helping solve two water-related challenges for farmers: scarcity and environmental impacts. Over the last few decades, water has become increasingly scarce, especially in Western states.13 In the next ten years, 40 out of 50 states expect to have some type of water shortage.14 As water becomes increasingly scarce farmers' irrigation costs are likely to rise – cutting into farmers' profits and the economic vitality of the agricultural industry.

Agricultural water use also has significant negative externalities on the local environment. Over-watering of crops causes nutrient runoff which can lead to "dead zones" in the world's oceans.15 Second, the diversion of water for agricultural use can threaten environmentally sensitive areas and ecosystems.16

Wireless technology helps prevent farmers from both over- and under-watering their crops, helping address both challenges.17 For example, wireless technology can be installed on soil moisture monitors to allow farmers to instantaneously access information on the actual soil moisture needs of their fields. Farmers can then use wireless technology to switch off their irrigator remotely to adjust to the crops' water needs.

As farmers use inputs, such as water, more efficiently, they are conserving environmental resources. The conservation of water in agricultural production is an important component of the United States Department of Agricultures' ("USDA") larger objective of promoting "sustainable agriculture."18 Sustainable agriculture helps to ensure that we meet the needs of society today without compromising the welfare of future generations. In addition, by enabling farmers to use water more efficiently wireless technology increases farmers' profits.19

While the use of wireless technology by farmers has increased notably, there is still significant room for adoption of the technology in irrigation management. In 2013, nearly 80 percent of farms with irrigated land still used visual inspection of the crop as a method of deciding when to irrigate.20 In comparison, only 11 percent of farms used a moisture sensing device as a method of deciding when to irrigate in 2013.21 Since 2003, however, the number of farms using a soil moisture sensing device grew by nearly 50 percent.22 If the number of farms adopting moisture sensing devices grew at the same rate from 2013 to 2023 then an additional 12,900 farms will have adopted the technology by 2023 – nearly 40,000 U.S. farms total.23 Indeed, moisture sensing devices were the fastest growing method of irrigation decision-making of any method from 2003 to 2013.24

In this paper, we evaluate the ways in which wireless technology has the ability to enhance farmers' water-related decision making abilities in the U.S. We focus on the ways in which wireless technology is being used in irrigation management and the positive externalities this use has on water conservation and water quality. In Section II we provide an overview of irrigation and water use in U.S. agriculture. Section III describes the important role of wireless technology in agriculture, and in Section IV we review case studies from two key agricultural states, California and Minnesota, on the adoption and use of wireless technology in agricultural production. Finally, in Section V we present important lessons learned and conclusions.

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Footnotes

1 The wireless industry benefits many sectors of the U.S. economy; every dollar in wireless industry revenue supports $1.32 in additional revenue for the U.S. economy and every job in the wireless industry supports over six additional jobs in the U.S. See Coleman Bazelon and Giulia McHenry, "Mobile Broadband Spectrum: A Vital Resource for the American Economy," CTIA, May 11, 2015, pp. 18-21, http://www.brattle.com/system/publications/pdfs/000/005/168/original/Mobile_Broadband_Spectrum_-_A_Valuable_Resource_for_the_
American_Economy_Bazelon_McHenry_051115.pdf?1431372403
.

2 Office of the Press Secretary, "Fact Sheet: Next Steps in Delivering Fast, Affordable Broadband," The White House, March 23, 2015, accessed April 4, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/23/fact-sheet-next-steps-delivering-fast-affordable-broadband.

3 Cisco estimates that mobile data traffic in the U.S. grew by 56% in 2015. Similarly, Ericsson estimates that mobile data traffic on smartphones in North America was up from 483 petabytes (PB) per month in 2014 to 986 PB / month in 2015 and that mobile data traffic on mobile personal computers, routers, and/or tablets was up from 187 PB / month in 2014 to 266 PB / month in 2015. See "VNI Mobile Forecast Highlights, 2015-2020: United States – 2015 Year in Review," Cisco, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.cisco.com/assets/sol/sp/vni/forecast_highlights_mobile/index.html#~Country; and "Traffic Exploration," Ericsson, accessed April 18, 2016,  (PB) per month in 2014 to 986 PB / month in 2015 and that mobile data traffic on mobile personal computers, routers, and/or tablets was up from 187 PB / month in 2014 to 266 PB / month in 2015. See "VNI Mobile Forecast Highlights, 2015-2020: United States – 2015 Year in Review," Cisco, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.cisco.com/assets/sol/sp/vni/forecast_highlights_mobile/index.html#~Country; and "Traffic Exploration," Ericsson, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.ericsson.com/TET/trafficView/loadBasicEditor.ericsson.

4 Agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $789 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2013 and provided 17.3 million jobs in 2014. "Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy," USDA Economic Research Service, May 14, 2015, accessed November 25, 2015, http://ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx.

5 Consumptive use estimates measure the amount of water consumed by the crop that is not returned to the water resource system. "Irrigation and Water Use," United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") Economic Research Service, accessed November 18, 2015, http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use.aspx; and "Agricultural Production is a Major Use of Land, Accounting for Over Half of the U.S. Land Base," USDA Economic Research Service, accessed April 11, 2016, Consumptive use estimates measure the amount of water consumed by the crop that is not returned to the water resource system. "Irrigation and Water Use," United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") Economic Research Service, accessed November 18, 2015, http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use.aspx; and "Agricultural Production is a Major Use of Land, Accounting for Over Half of the U.S. Land Base," USDA Economic Research Service, accessed April 11, 2016, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40023&ref=collection&embed=True&widgetId=39734.

6 Glenn D. Schaible and Marcel P. Aillery, Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands, Economic Information Bulletin No. 99, USDA Economic Research Service (September 2012): pp. iv, accessed November 25, 2015, http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/884158/eib99.pdf.

7 In 2013 there were 2,094,250 farms in the U.S. compared to 2,092,550 farms in the U.S. in 2005. Calculation: 31.5% = 0.315 = ((0.67 x 2,094,250) – (0.51 x 2,092,550)) / (0.51 x 2,092,550). National Agricultural Statistics Service ("NASS"), "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," USDA, July 2005, p. 8, accessed November 30, 2015, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/FarmComp//2000s/2005/FarmComp-08-12-2005.pdf; NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," USDA, August 2007, p. 21-24, accessed December 22, 2015, In 2013 there were 2,094,250 farms in the U.S. compared to 2,092,550 farms in the U.S. in 2005. Calculation: 31.5% = 0.315 = ((0.67 x 2,094,250) – (0.51 x 2,092,550)) / (0.51 x 2,092,550). National Agricultural Statistics Service ("NASS"), "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," USDA, July 2005, p. 8, accessed November 30, 2015, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/FarmComp//2000s/2005/FarmComp-08-12-2005.pdf; NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," USDA, August 2007, p. 21-24, accessed December 22, 2015, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/FarmComp//2000s/2007/FarmComp-08-10-2007.pdf; and NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," USDA, August 2015, p. 9 and pp. 25-28, accessed November 30, 2015, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmComp/FarmComp-08-19-2015.pdf.

8 NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," July 2005, p. 18; and NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," August 2015, pp. 22-23.

9 Calculation: 952% = 9.52 = ((0.67 x 2,094,250 x 0.24) – (0.51 x 2,092,550 x 0.03)) ÷ (0.51 x 2,092,550 x 0.03).

10 NASS, "Farm Computer Usage and Ownership," August 2015, pp. 22-23.

11 For example, in July 2015 farmers in Illinois had such flood-damaged crops that they sought a federal disaster declaration. In Illinois' Iroquois County alone flooding drowned approximately 40 percent of crops following record rainfall in June 2015. See Associated Press, "Disaster Declaration Sought to Help Flooded Illinois Farmers," The Washington Times, July 22, 2015, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jul/22/disaster-declaration-sought-to-help-flooded-illino/.

12 G. Vellidis, V. Garrick, et al., "How Wireless Will Change Agriculture," Precision Agriculture 7 (2007): p. 2, accessed November 25, 2015, http://vellidis.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Vellidis.How_.Wireless.Will_.Change.Agriculture.6ECPA.pdf.

13 Western states have faced drought conditions for 11 of the past 14 years that have resulted in severe water shortages. Brian Clark Howard, "Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for American West," National Geographic, February 12, 2015, accessed April 1, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150212-megadrought-southwest-water-climate-environment/ and Ellie Kincaid, "California Isn't the Only State with Water Problems," Business Insider, April 21, 2015, accessed December 7, 2015, Western states have faced drought conditions for 11 of the past 14 years that have resulted in severe water shortages. Brian Clark Howard, "Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for American West," National Geographic, February 12, 2015, accessed April 1, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150212-megadrought-southwest-water-climate-environment/ and Ellie Kincaid, "California Isn't the Only State with Water Problems," Business Insider, April 21, 2015, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/americas-about-to-hit-a-water-crisis-2015-4.

14 Kincaid, "California Isn't the Only State with Water Problems." For information on individual states' water challenges, see Water Sense, "State Water Facts," United States Environmental Protection Agency, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www3.epa.gov/watersense/our_water/state_facts.html.

15 The second largest dead zone in the world is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a 6,474 square mile region that was created and continues to exist due to nitrogen and phosphorus washed into the gulf from sources along the Mississippi River; the dead zone costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industries an estimated $82 million per year, impacting a region that supplies more than 40 percent of the country's seafood. See "2015 Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone 'Above Average'," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ("NOAA"), August 4, 2015, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2015/080415-gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-above-average.html.

16 For example, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, water exports have resulted in the deterioration of an ecosystem that supports 20 endangered species. See California State Water Project, "Where Rivers Meet – The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," California Department of Water Resources, 2015, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/delta.cfm.

17 Over-watering crops can result in nitrogen leaching and runoff, increased weed pressure, and increased potential for crop yield losses due to fungal and bacterial foliar and root rotting diseases. Under-watered crops experience wilting and even potentially the death of a plant. See Suat Irmak, "Plant Growth and Yield as Affected by Wet Soil Conditions Due to Flooding or Over-Irrigation," NebGuide, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (April 2014), accessed December 14, 2015, http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/g1904.pdf and Hal Werner, "Measuring Soil Moisture for Irrigation Water Management," South Dakota State University College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences (April 2002), p. 1, accessed December 1, 2015, , University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (April 2014), accessed December 14, 2015, http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/g1904.pdf and Hal Werner, "Measuring Soil Moisture for Irrigation Water Management," South Dakota State University College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences (April 2002), p. 1, accessed December 1, 2015, http://pubstorage.sdstate.edu/agbio_publications/articles/fs876.pdf.

18 Sustainable agriculture was addressed by the U.S. Congress in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990. The term was then defined as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: (i) Satisfy human food and fiber needs; (ii) Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; (iii) Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (iv) Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (v) Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole." See "Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms," USDA, National Agricultural Library, accessed November 18, 2015, http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms-1#toc2.

19 Irrigation management establishes the "proper timing and amount of irrigation for greatest effectiveness. This will minimize yield loss due to crop water stress, maximize yield response to other management practices, and optimize yield per unit of water applied." See Irmak, "Plant Growth and Yield."

20 Moisture sensing devices include soil moisture and plant moisture sensing devices. USDA, "2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey," 2012 Census of Agriculture, November 2014, p. 87, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Farm_and_Ranch_Irrigation_Survey/fris13.pdf.

21 Moisture sensing devices include soil moisture and plant moisture sensing devices. USDA, "2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey," p. 87.

22 In 2013, 26,325 farms reported using either a soil moisture or plant moisture sensing device compared to 17,645 farms in 2003. Calculation: 49% = 0.4919 = (26,325 – 17,645) / 17,645. USDA, "2003 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey," 2002 Census of Agriculture, November 2004, p. 160, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2002/FRIS/fris03.pdf; and USDA, "2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey," p. 87.

23 Calculation: 39,275 farms = 26,325 farms x (1 + 49.2%).

24 See Table 1.

This report was prepared for the CTIA Wireless FoundationTM.

Acknowledgement: We acknowledge the valuable contributions of many individuals to this report and to the underlying analysis, including members of The Brattle Group for peer review. Specifically, we are indebted for contributions from Sam Newell, Chris McCaffrey, Laurie Sellars, and Zach Wulderk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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