Iowa Farmers’ Perspectives on Precision Agriculture

By J. Arbuckle, Joe Hollis, and Katie Dentzman

USDA’s Economic Research Service defines precision agriculture (PA) as “a suite of technologies that may reduce input costs by providing the farm operator with detailed spatial information that can be used to optimize field management practices.” Marketing of PA technologies generally focuses on potential benefits such as increased productivity and profitability, optimization of input use, and overall improved sustainability of farming practices. But what do farmers, the typical PA end users, think about these technologies? A recent Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll survey examines use of key PA technologies and farmers’ perspectives regarding the potential benefits and concerns related to use of these technologies.1 This article summarizes the findings. 

Are farmers using PA?

The first question set asked farmers if they were using any items on a list of common PA technologies. Use rates ranged from 66% for global positioning system (GPS) yield monitors and/or maps to 12% for on-farm sensors for soil, air, or plant tissue data collection (table 1). Theories of behavioral change posit that openness to adoption and then formation of an intention to adopt generally precede adoption of innovations. Our survey results show that many farmers who were not using the practices were either open to trying them or have plans to use them in the next three years.

Table 1. Precision Agriculture Technologies: Adoption, Intent to Adopt, and Openness to Adoption
 I used it in 2021Not used in 2021, but intend to use within 3 yearsNot planning to use within 3 years, but open to idea of future useNot used in 2021; no plans to use it
GPS yield monitors and/or maps66%8%10%17%
GPS soil maps60%11%13%16%
GPS guidance systems (steering assistance, auto steer, etc.)56%7%13%24%
Variable rate equipment (sprayers, fertilizer applicators, etc.)56%13%14%17%
Satellite imagery30%16%25%29%
Data from online decision tools to guide crop management27%21%25%28%
Drones or aircraft-based imagery21%18%29%32%
On-farm sensors to collect data (soil, air, plant tissue, etc.).12%19%32%37%

Farmers’ perceptions of potential benefits

PA technologies are posited to result in numerous benefits to farmers and farm enterprises. One question set asked farmers to rate their agreement with a series of benefit-related statements on a five-point agreement scale. The statements were preceded by the introductory text, “Using precision agriculture technologies can…” The highest rated statement, with 87% agreement, was “increase efficiency of input application” (table 2). Most farmers also agreed that PA technologies can increase crop yield (78%), improve confidence in management decisions (75%), and increase farm operation profitability (74%). Another benefit that received high levels of endorsement was facilitation of subfield-level management: most farmers agreed that PA technologies can help with subfield management of nutrient loss (73% agreement) and soil health (70%).

Table 2. Farmer Perspectives on Potential Benefits of Precision Agriculture Technologies
Use of precision agriculture technologies can…Strongly disagreeDisagreeUncertainAgreeStrongly agree
increase efficiency of input application1%1%11%62%26%
increase yield for individual crops1%3%19%62%16%
improve confidence in management decisions1%2%23%61%14%
increase profitability of the farm operation as a whole1%3%22%55%18%
identify subfield areas needing nutrient loss management1%2%25%58%15%
identify subfield areas needing soil health management1%3%27%58%12%
confirm the effectiveness of prior management decisions 1%3%27%60%10%
increase profitability by optimizing crop types and rotation1%3%30%53%12%
identify subfield areas needing soil erosion management1%5%28%54%11%
identify opportunities to change field layouts (share and size of fields) to improve overall economic performance1%7%40%45%8%
identify areas that could be shifted from row crops to perennial crops or conservation plantings2%10%40%39%9%

Do farmers believe claims about PA?

Many claims are made about the ways in which PA might change agriculture. Typically, these claims focus on potential benefits for farmers and the environment, but there are also critiques and counter-claims. We posed several statements expressing such claims and critiques and asked farmers to rate the degree to which they agreed with them. We preceded the statements with the introductory text, “In the next 10 years, advances in precision farming technology may lead to changes in Iowa’s agriculture. Please rate your agreement/disagreement with statements about potential impacts.” The phrase “Precision technologies in agriculture will likely lead to…” immediately preceded the statements.

The statement about potential impacts that elicited the most agreement was “increased profits for machinery and technology companies,” with 78% agreement, followed by […will likely lead to] fewer and larger farms (71%) (table 3). Other statements about potential impacts that substantial majorities of farmers agreed with were more effective pest control (66%), reduced labor needs (59%), reduced nutrient runoff (59%), and improved soil health (58%). About half (51%) agreed that PA technologies would lead to increased profits for input suppliers, and 50% agreed that they would lead to increased profits for farmers. Less than one-third of farmers agreed that PA technologies would lead to decreased reliance on fertilizers (31%), less need for agrichemicals (30%), reduced greenhouse gas emissions (24%) or decreased farmer dependence on purchased inputs (23%). For these latter items, a plurality of respondents selected the uncertain category. 

Table 3. Farmer Perspectives on Potential Impacts of Precision Agriculture over the Next 10 Years
Precision technologies in agriculture will likely lead to…Strongly disagreeDisagreeUncertainAgreeStrongly agree
increased profits for machinery and technology companies0%2%20%60%18%
fewer and larger farms1%5%24%51%20%
more effective pest control methods (e.g., weeds, insects)1%3%30%61%5%
reduced need for farm labor1%9%31%53%6%
less nutrient runoff into waterways1%6%33%52%7%
improved soil health1%5%36%53%6%
increased profits for input suppliers0%5%44%41%9%
increased profits for farmers1%5%44%45%5%
increases in farmers' decision-making independence1%13%44%39%3%
decreased need for fertilizers2%27%40%28%2%
decreased need for agri-chemicals (e.g., herbicides, insecticides)3%22%45%28%3%
reduced greenhouse gas emissions5%16%56%22%2%
decreased farmer dependence on purchased inputs2%27%49%21%2%

Potential concerns

The last question set examined potential concerns or challenges associated with PA technologies, and we again asked respondents to express their agreement or disagreement on a five-point scale. The highest rated item focused on cost, with 74% of farmers agreeing that the cost of new PA hardware is too high (table 4). At the same time, however, just 23% agreed that the cost of PA technologies exceeds the benefits, although this item also garnered the highest level of uncertainty, at 48%. Other notable results include 73% agreement that keeping up with PA technologies is like a never-ending treadmill and concern that data could be used for regulatory purposes (52% agreement).

Table 4. Potential Concerns or Challenges Related to Precision Agriculture Technologies
 Strongly disagreeDisagreeUncertainAgreeStrongly agree
The cost of new precision-farming hardware is too high1%6%20%53%


Precision farming technologies are more beneficial for big farms2%20%24%38%


The cost of maintaining precision farming hardware is too high1%12%40%39%


The cost of precision farming technologies exceeds benefits3%25%48%18%


Data from precision technologies could be used for regulatory purposes3%5%40%43%


I am concerned that corporations could use farmers’ planting and harvest data to manipulate markets2%10%37%37%


I’m not sure I am using the data I collect as effectively as possible1%9%41%43%


Corporations will use data primarily for their benefit, not farmers2%18%40%29%


Knowledge and capacity
Keeping up with precision technologies is like a never-ending treadmill1%8%19%58%


Precision farming technologies are difficult to learn3%29%32%33%


Precision-farming technologies take too much time to learn3%37%42%17%



Overall, survey results indicate that most survey participants view PA technologies as beneficial and promising for increasing input-use efficiency, yields, profitability, and overall sustainability. More than 70% of farmers reported using at least one of the eight technologies listed, and most farmers who were not currently using a given practice reported that they either intend to adopt it within the next three years or were open to future use. However, while respondents are generally positive towards PA, results also indicate concerns about potential negative aspects and impacts. While most farmers believed PA technologies could have positive impacts on their farms, management processes, and environmental issues, there was some worry that PA technologies are difficult to learn, keeping up with them can feel like a never-ending treadmill, and that many of the benefits will accrue to PA technology firms and larger-scale farms. 


1. This article is a condensed version of the 2023 report, Iowa Farmers’ Perspectives on Precision Agriculture, available at

Suggested citation

Arbuckle, J., J. Hollis, and K. Dentzman. 2024. “Iowa Farmers’ Perspectives on Precision Agriculture Technologies.” Agricultural Policy Review, Winter 2024. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Available at: