When Don Glenn crawled into his tractor cab March 15 and used a cell phone to connect with an antenna on the roof of R. A. Hubbard High School in North Courtland eight miles away, he was off and running into agricultural history — one perfect row at a time.No more over applying expensive fertilizer.
No more over applications of herbicides.
And no more lugging around a six-foot-tall tripod that must be kept within the line of sight.For Don, this is the way precision agriculture should be — just push a couple of buttons and go. No hands on the wheel and your tractor tires always traveling over the same ground every time you enter the field.Don’s smile must’ve been as broad as a 12-row planter that March day, much like it was May 16 when he spoke at the dedication of the new Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS) at R.A. Hubbard High School.After all, it was Don and a group of eight other Lawrence County farmers who pooled their resources, along with substantial contributions from the Alabama Cotton Commission and the State Wheat & Feed Grains Committee, to foot the $25,000 cost of the station. Unlike portable base stations that require a clear line of sight, CORS provides a continuous Global Positioning System reference point for a signal beamed from 28 satellites orbiting high above the Earth. Coordinated by the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CORS is the result of an $18 billion U.S. military investment that is open to the public — without charge — and now used for anything from surveying and engineering to road building and law enforcement.Alabama currently has 11 other CORS sites — Tuscaloosa, Troy, Tuscumbia, Birmingham, Montgomery, Alex City, Mobile, Dauphin Island, Dothan, Gadsden and Huntsville — that are monitored 24/7 by the Alabama Department of Transportation. So far, however, the Courtland site is the only one being utilized for precision agriculture.”It’s a technology that’s a developing technology, and these farmers were willing to try it and willing to make this happen,” said Dr. Paul Mask, assistant director for agriculture, forestry and natural resources with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which coordinated the massive partnership between public and private agencies and individuals. “For us, it’s a pilot project. We hope to use this to get more CORS in the state. That’s really been the history of precision ag in this area. It all started here because farmers were willing to try it and work with it, and because of that, it has spread on out.”Glenn Acres Farm, operated by Don, his brother Brian and father Eugene, took its first step into precision agriculture a decade ago. Three years ago, they took another step, linking up with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville to utilize the CORS station at the Geospatial Training and Application Center.”The problem was getting the correction signal to the equipment,” said Don. “The process at the time was to set up a portable base station and use a low-powered radio to transmit that signal to the tractor or the rover unit. That system just did not work in our area because of the topography, the rolling ground and trees.”But he knew it could be done. Working with Chris Johnson, vice president of the GTAC, and “using some cobbled together technology with wires running all over tractor cabs, we proved that we could bring that signal in from the station by cell phone.” “Alabama was the first state to have a signal broadcast live to the tractor, and that’s another great leap for Alabama,” said Johnson. “Anytime we can put Alabama at the top of the list, we’re all for it.”Still, the Huntsville station was almost 30 miles away from Glenn Acres’ fields, resulting in lost signals and a loss of precision. “It was working,” Don said, “but it just wasn’t quite where we needed it to be.”He was convinced Lawrence County farmers needed a CORS station of their own. As he sat with a group of farmers at the Belle Mina Substation last fall, he declared, “If we can’t get it any other way, we’ll build a station ourselves.”That’s when the tide turned. Amy Winstead and Shannon Norwood, Extension agents in precision agriculture, joined in and “things just fell together,” he said.The effort grew to include help from the Alabama Department of Transportation, the Alabama Department of Revenue, the Lawrence County Board of Education, the offices of Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Bud Cramer, the National Geodetic Survey, the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Wheat & Feed Grain Committee, the Alabama Cotton Commission and countless others.”In agriculture, we’ve worked with a lot of different groups, but most of them didn’t have ‘Space & Rocket’ in their name,” said Mask. “Extension’s role has always been in transferring technology and when precision farming came in, it has involved a lot more partners than we have traditionally worked with.”Oddly enough, Brian Glenn, president of the Lawrence County Farmers Federation, says that each technological advance has made precision agriculture easier for the farmer.”The skill level is increasing, but at the same time, the technology has become more standardized, more user-friendly,” Brian said. “Yes, you’ve got to be technologically savvy, but it’s a lot easier to do this than what we were doing three years ago.”He calls the new CORS site “light years ahead” of the old portable base station that was mounted on a tripod. “Base station technology was started in the Midwest where you can see forever,” Brian said. “But we’ve got very few fields that are rectangular — you wrap around hedgerows and once you go behind that hedgerow, you’ve lost the signal. It just wasn’t practical. Not only that, but when you got out of the line of sight, you had to pick up the tripod, put it in the tractor cab along with the battery.”With the new site, Brian said the accuracy has improved to within one inch, instead of the four- or five-inch accuracy they had when linked to the Huntsville site 29 miles away.
What’s more, Brian says brother Don has become so tech savvy in working with one software company that he’s “sort of become a beta tester because of this.””Not only are we operating the equipment, but because of Don’s relationship, we’re able to tell the company, ‘Hey, you need to be working it this way instead of that way.’ You know, help make it more user friendly. I hate to say it, but engineers don’t think like farmers.”