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What’s New: Some introspection about GPS disruption to farming. Also interesting stats about GPS use, automation, etc.

Why It’s Important: GPS is used extensively in agriculture. Like many industries, much farming has been transformed by GPS. The amount of equipment, labor, and cost have all gone down, which is good. Not so good is that it can be very hard to go back to pre-GPS farming in some cases because the needed extra equipment, labor, and expertise is not there.

What Else to Know: While it was called a “major” solar event, it was nothing like the Carrington Event or other more powerful ones that show up in the geological record.

For many Midwest crop producers, the May 10 geomagnetic solar storm couldn’t have hit at a worse time. The resulting GPS outage proved frustrating as guidance systems on tractors, planters, fertilizer spreaders and sprayers simply stopped functioning.

As farm operations have become more reliant on GPS technology, the outage forced some producers to temporarily pause operations, while others opted to go old-school using line-of-sight and row markers to keep rolling.

According to Kansas State University Ag Economist Terry Griffin, it’s also spurred questions of how GPS outages could affect U.S. farm profitability during critical periods such as planting and harvest.

The answer, as usual, is that “it depends,” Griffin said in a recent University of Illinois farmdoc report, noting that reliance on GPS has become an integral part of agricultural technology since the 1990s, with an estimated 70% of planted U.S. acreage now relying on the technology.

While farm operations not relying upon GPS during the May 10 outage are expected to experience negligible yield and revenue differences, whole-farm losses for operations relying upon GPS for navigation, automated row shutoffs, or variable rate input applications could be significant.

“As automated guidance became more common, planters became wider due to GPS negating the necessity of physical row markers. Without row markers, planters could be much wider; however, this exposes farmers to downtime risk due to GPS outage vulnerability,” Griffin said.