The InfoAg Connection

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In the wake of the largest InfoAg Conference ever, it is a good time to emphasize the importance of this event and precision agriculture to the fertilizer industry. Since 1995, the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) has partnered with CropLife Media Group and PAQ Interactive to put together a biennial gathering of manufacturers, retailers, researchers (industry and university), advisers and consultants, producers and policymakers within the precision ag industry. The conference has become the premier event to discuss and view applied precision agriculture technology.

The question that gets asked is “Why does IPNI, a fertilizer industry-supported organization, invest so much time and so many resources into a conference focused largely on technology and information management?” The answer relates to IPNI’s organizational mission.

The mission of IPNI is “to develop and promote scientific information about the responsible management of plant nutrition for the benefit of the human family.” Responsible management refers to following 4R Nutrient Stewardship, which is applying the right nutrient source at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. Management decisions are made within the context of the cropping system and will work toward meeting economic, environmental and social goals of a sustainable agricultural system.

The 4Rs are interconnected and must be considered holistically as any change made to one factor affects, and is affected by, the other three. The complexity of this puzzle can only be solved using the tools, technologies and information management strategies that are found in precision agriculture.

Playing A Key Role

In his keynote address at the 11th International Conference on Precision Agriculture, Dr. Newell Kitchen, USDA-ARS, highlighted the significant role that nutrient management plays in the precision agriculture industry. “Nutrient management has been a starting point, the seedbed of a lot of the concepts where we got going [in precision agriculture].” He noted that in the early years of the conference, as many as 70% of the papers presented dealt with nutrient management.

Nutrient management has continued to be one of the drivers of technology development and adoption as evidenced by more than 70% of the dealers responding to the most recent CropLife/Purdue University Precision Agriculture Survey indicating that they offer variable-rate fertilizer applications. This number is projected to increase to 80% by 2016.

The linkage between nutrient stewardship and precision agriculture goes beyond simply managing inputs. Precision agriculture tools facilitate and enhance the feedback and recordkeeping necessary for the accountability that is needed in nutrient management. The inclusion of accountability is another example of how 4R stewardship moves beyond traditional nutrient management.

One of the main ways this is accomplished is through the inclusion of a dynamic feedback mechanism. In the past, nutrient management has been linear, mostly from the top down, with no feedback nor any assessment of changes in practice. 4R nutrient stewardship provides the framework for stakeholder involvement at the farm, regional, and policy-making levels and precision agriculture tools can provide feedback to all of these positions. The use of performance indicators as an objective evaluation of management practices, which can increase the level of accountability that is important to most all stakeholders, can also be done more accurately and effectively using precision agriculture technologies.

Integrating precision agriculture and 4R Nutrient Stewardship enhances our ability to meet the sustainability goals of crop production systems. As more growers adopt precision technologies for guidance, variable-rate control, data collection and information management, their ability to apply the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place increases considerably. This integration also enhances feedback among stakeholders and increases the confidence that the economic, environmental and social challenges that face agricultural production can be viewed as opportunities to further advance nutrient management.

Connecting The Dots

In addition to the jigsaw puzzle that is the 4Rs, InfoAg also helps solve another type of puzzle — connecting the dots. In this case, the “dots” are people. InfoAg was started as a way to bring together vendors and practitioners of precision ag technologies. Building and fostering these relationships remains one of the greatest attributes of the conference today. Social media is one of our most valuable communication tools for sharing information, but following each other on Twitter doesn’t result in the depth or quality of the relationships that face-to-face time at InfoAg can accomplish.

The goal of a connect-the-dots puzzle is to create a picture. InfoAg creates a picture of partnerships. Connecting the right people at the InfoAg conference creates the partnerships that are necessary to overcome the obstacles production agriculture will face in the coming decades.

Successful partnerships are synergistic. InfoAg participants represent such a variety of expertise and a diversity of skill sets that one plus one at this conference equals five rather than two. Producing the food, feed, fiber and fuel needed to sustain a population projected to surpass nine billion people by 2050, is not a task that science, technology, or policy can accomplish alone. This massive challenge will only be met by the synergy created at InfoAg — partnerships that combine the accuracy of science, the precision of technology and the support of policy.

In a response to the challenges ahead and feedback from participants, InfoAg will leave its traditional biennial format and become an annual event beginning in the summer of 2014. The next InfoAg will be held July 29-31 at the Union Station Hilton in downtown St. Louis, MO. Stay informed by visiting www.infoag.org and following @InfoAg.

Steve Phillips is Southeast North America regional director for the International Plant Nutrition Institute.

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