Bringing the Human into Precision Agriculture: What Farmers Need from Decision Support Systems to Meet Economic and Water Quality Goals
Growth in precision agriculture and data have made it easier than ever to analyze fields for both profit and water quality conservation. Indeed, recent research suggests that management decisions that maximize profit, rather than yield, are often better for water quality. However, despite farmer interest and clear financial and environmental benefits of spatially-targeted management, PA tools have not yet been widely adopted. One explanation is that most decision support systems in agriculture were not designed with farmers’ needs in mind. Specifically, common decision support systems only provide visualizations with limited support for decision-making and were developed with little or no user feedback before and during the design process. Lack of farmer engagement and analysis in the design process lead to products that are not useful for the intended audience. Until end-users are more directly involved in the design process for precision agriculture, tools are likely to fail to meet user needs, resulting in low levels of adoption and implementation.
The goal of this project is to improve precision agriculture decision support systems by identifying how farmers and farm managers currently use this type of information and data to make management decisions for farm profitability and environmental stewardship. The project will also use the data to refine a new PA tool.
The research team will achieve this goal by conducting the user research needed to design and develop a decision-support system called Foresite, a scientifically based precision agriculture tool that offers opportunities to increase on-farm profits while improving water quality.
Note: Project reports published on the INRC website are often revised from researchers' original reports to increase consistency.
Since the last report, our main accomplishment has been conducting 26 interviews with a mix of farmers, farm managers and conservation professionals. These interviews focused on better understanding how conservation is being implemented on the landscape, the decision-making that goes into conservation placement and land use, and how various tools, including precision ag/geospatial technology, play a part. The average interview lasted for just over an hour and audio from the interviews was de-identified and transcribed for analysis.
Using the transcriptions, the team also conducted an initial top-down analysis of the interviews to identify general themes. From the top-down data, individual pieces of seemingly important information were pulled out from the interviews, for a total of 1,762 ‘nuggets’ of information across all three stakeholder groups. From there, researchers planned out how to conduct the affinity diagramming session identified in the original proposal. One affinity diagram was conducted for the farmer group in January 2022, and the other two will be completed in the coming months.
Once it did not appear that the Covid-19 pandemic would be ending soon, researchers decided to shift directions from in-person interviews/observations to interviews conducted via Zoom. This allowed moving more rapidly in preparation and planning. During this time, a call-for-participation one-pager was completed and stakeholder groups identified. Tracking documents were created so that persons contacted could be tracked and managed. Researchers strategized which stakeholder groups should be prioritized in recruitment based on initial volume of responses.
A second graduate student was recruited to assist with interviews and data analysis in the following semester. Researchers met several times as a group to discuss, refine and finalize research protocol documents for each stakeholder group given the decision to transition to online interviews. These documents would serve as the basis for guiding and maintaining consistency in the semi-structure interviews. Also discussed were the journals we would like to publish the work in once completed. Last, after every member of the team completed the human-subjects research training, the research plan was submitted to the ISU Internal Review Board, which approved the plan. This was the final step so that interviews can begin in August.