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Delta: a hotbed of technology

Those who contend that modern agriculture and environmental protection are incompatible are following “old thinking,” Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman says. Their position “doesn't reflect the advances of modern technology and the increased efficiencies of production agriculture,” she said on a recent Mid-South trip. “We now know that concepts like sustainable development and wise stewardship of resources are not just slogans, but rather are philosophies that recognize the necessity of an integrated approach to agriculture, conservation, and environmental protection,” she said.

“The Delta is already a hotbed of cutting edge technology,” said Veneman, who made stops at AgriCenter International, Memphis, Tenn.; at the Delta Council annual meeting at Cleveland, Miss.; and at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center at Stuttgart, Ark. U.S. farmers are in the forefront of utilizing high technology systems and information to improve production efficiency and yields, she noted — among them “Bt cotton, which is helping to reduce production costs and the use of pesticides.”

When most people hear the words “high tech business,” they think of things like the Internet and electronics industries, she said. “But agriculture is a high tech industry — as high tech as in America today, and it's thriving. What's more, it is used to the pressures and rewards of evolving technology, and has proven itself remarkably adaptable.”

Not only are new technologies transforming production agriculture, food processing, and marketing, “they hold the promise of further lowering farm production costs, improving the environment, and creating vast new food and non-food markets for producers,” she said.

Veneman cited the Ag2020 project, which includes USDA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Cotton Council, the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, and the National Association of Wheat Growers, as “a great example” of how industry and government can work together to use precision technologies to help reduce production costs, improve yields, protect the environment, and reduce economic risk.

Grower associations, working with USDA and NASA, develop and test new technologies, validate their usefulness in on-farm trials, and then disseminate the results to their members.

“Some of the most fascinating work,” Veneman said, has been the collaboration with NASA to use airborne and satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies to help farmers in deciding when and where to apply fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, and in making earlier predictions of yields and quality. She recognized the Delta Council's outgoing president Kenneth Hood, who has extensive farming, ginning, and other business interests, as a participant in the project.

“We hope to put an additional $40 million into Ag2020 between now and 2004,” she said.

Another good example of how current information technology is being used, Veneman said, “can be found at Stoneville, Miss., where USDA is working with the Delta Research and Extension Center at Mississippi State University and the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center to provide much-needed weather and climate information to the agricultural community. Automated weather stations have been selectively placed in the Delta to collect data on temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture.

“In addition to passing this information on to local farmers, researchers use it to make crop models that advise producers how to increase the efficiency of irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide applications. American agriculture has always enjoyed the home-field advantage of access to the strongest high-tech economy, run by the brightest minds in the world,” she said. “We will need to continue pressing that advantage in the years to come.”

These new technologies and the new global marketplace “are creating tremendous opportunities for U.S. agriculture,” Veneman said.

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