Culpeper Star Exponent: Precision agriculture holds hope for farmers, Louisa man tells Congress


Dustin Madison isn’t used to being front and center in the U.S. Capitol.

But this week, that’s where the Virginia farmer found himself as he testified before a panel of the powerful House Agriculture Committee.

Madison, who grew up working on his family’s crop and cattle farm in Louisa County, shared his expertise in the burgeoning field of what’s called “precision agriculture” with the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry during a Tuesday hearing inside the Longworth House Office Building.

The expert, who has been consulting for other Central Virginia farmers for 15 years, told lawmakers that farmers can use the specialty’s cutting-edge techniques to improve crop yields and soil fertility, lower costs and increase profits, conserve farmland and bolster the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

A certified crop advisor and Virginia resource management planner, Madison oversees soil management and crop production for Engel Family Farms, which grows corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops on 20,000 acres in 17 counties across the commonwealth.

“One of the best parts of precision ag and conservation ag is, if you combine the two, we can really make ourselves a lot more profitable,” Madison testified. “And we can verify that … we can look at our information after a year’s over and say we did a better job and we can see it in the bank account. … If we can make better decisions and we can not lose money … that’s huge.”

The idea is the same as in any business, he said: Put money where it counts, make good decisions, use all the data you have available, and “hit the repeat button.”

Precision agriculture employs GPS-enabled tractors, aerial photography, remote sensors, laser levels and other gear to enable farmers and livestock producers to use less fuel, chemicals, water, land and time to grow more. It holds promise of making agriculture more sustainable and increasing food availability.

That’s a far cry from just a decade or two ago, Madison told the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.

“Even in the ’90s, here in Virginia, conservation and agriculture were not even in the same conversation,” he testified. “They were two different things. … I could plow a field, it could rain the next day, and all my topsoil, all my nutrients would go down a hill, into the creek and end up somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. Fast forward to today, we do a lot better.”

Now, no-till farming and planting cover crops—which reduce soil loss, rainwater runoff and erosion—are considered standard techniques, he said.

Madison told the subcommittee it was an honor to address its members.

In a phone interview afterward, Spanberger said she hopes Tuesday’s hearing will help make more people aware of “the great programs through the 2018 Farm Bill that are helping not just producers but anyone who is consumer-minded.”

Such dialogue helps ensure Americans better understand the people who provide the food they eat, she said.

“Sometimes, there’s a disconnect between agriculture and the experience of those of us who are buying our food from the grocery stores,” Spanberger said.

Virginia’s success at melding conservation with better farming has helped meet the needs of the multi-state Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, she said.

Her Louisa witness agreed, via email Wednesday night.

Virginia leads the nation in adopting conservation efforts in agriculture, Madison said.

“It’s pretty refreshing to have the opportunity to tell our story to members of Congress so they can better grasp the realities that we deal with daily at the farm level,” he said.

Combining precision agriculture with conservation practices presents many opportunities for farmers to keep improving their work and reap the rewards, Madison said.

But “to realize the benefits of everything technology has to offer the agriculture sector, we will need more capable cell and broadband service in rural areas,” he said.

Improving that service is a priority for Spanberer, as her actions this year have demonstrated. The lack of reliable broadband internet access is hurting local families, farmers, first responders, and agribusinesses, she has repeatedly pointed out.

This summer, Spanberger led the fight to approve a bipartisan amendment to boost, by 10 percent, federal funding for rural broadband infrastructure. Earlier this year, she passed an amendment to improve the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps, and hosted a Rural Broadband Summit in Louisa County.

In August, on a two-day tour of farms across the 7th District, the Henrico County resident met with producers, farm families and agribusinesses to learn more about how she can support economic growth and better farming.

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