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Foreign competition. It's the biggest challenge facing U.S. farmers in the 21st century.

To survive, farmers must learn how to cut operating costs to the bone, mercilessly but efficiently.

Precision farming offers many producers the real possibility of doing this.

How does it work? Basically, the same way as the GPS device in your car that enables you to navigate through complicated traffic grids in big cities.

Farmers are already using similar GPS technology to steer their tractors and harvesters accurately across their fields. But they are doing something even more significant. With the help of Alabama Cooperative Extension System Agents Shannon Norwood and Amy Winstead, they are also learning how to combine GPS with geographic information system (GIS) technology to compile a staggeringly complex cropland database combining soil maps with yield histories.

Using this database in tandem with GPS, farmers are now able to plant, spray and harvest their crops with virtual pinpoint accuracy, applying chemicals such as fertilizer, lime and nitrogen only where it's needed. The potential result: significant cost savings, coupled with reduced levels of farm chemicals that ultimately leach into lakes, rivers and streams.

The one-size-fits-all approach once associated with farming is now a thing of the past.

But precision farming has not come without challenges. Many of these farming techniques require a high level of accuracy and repeatability, which frequently requires the use of ground-based signals.

Until recently, farmers have used base stations that provide only a 6-mile coverage radius at a cost of roughly $12,000 a station. Aside from the high costs, these older stations also require line-of-sight transmission involving occasional relocation — for most producers, time and expense better invested elsewhere.

Working with nine Tennessee Valley growers, Norwood and Winstead undertook an effort to secure a 24/7 signal that did not require line-of-sight transmission and that was free to any farmer who wanted to use it.

They developed a partnership, bringing together many different players whose technical and financial support was critical in securing the effort's success.

From these efforts, Norwood and Winstead helped secure what is known as a Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS) coordinated by the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The station provides positioning data 24 hours a days as well as the vastly extended range farmers so badly needed.

CORS ensures that farm equipment remains on the same track during each pass through a field, greatly reducing the recurrent and costly problem of soil compaction.

CORS and other RTK technologies may also offer an added advantage. It may prove critical for farmers confronted with a natural calamity, such as an early spring freeze that forces them to replant quickly or an approaching autumn hurricane that requires them to work their harvesters night and day to beat the storm.

Norwood and Winstead view this station as an integral part of what will ultimately become a network covering the entire state, serving many sectors of the economy.

In fact, the station is not only benefitting farmers but also other professionals including the surveying and construction industry and the Department of Transportation.

For Norwood and Winstead, this is only the beginning.

In 2009, they stepped up efforts to help Alabamians from diverse professional backgrounds understand the practical uses of GIS technology. They are sharing their expertise with professionals and educators around the state who want to improve work performance by incorporating GIS-related technology.

For example, they are showing how a customized Google Earth application known as Virtual Alabama can be used to improve work performance in a variety of ways. Team member Shannon Norwood foresees almost unlimited uses for this technology, not only for many government agencies but also for educational institutions.

Homeowners can use a basic version of Google Earth for free that allows them to create basic maps for visualization.