Jason Ward: Using Precision Agriculture to Improve Practice

Precision Agriculture: Jason Ward in the field

Dr. Jason Ward joined the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in November 2017. Dr. Ward is an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, who conducts research on Precision Agriculture. We recently spoke to Dr. Ward to learn about his background, precision ag, NC State Extension and his work with students.


NC State: Tell me briefly about your background. Why did you pursue this field? What brought you to NC State?

Jason Ward: I started at the University of Kentucky, which has a strong history in precision agriculture. I took a great class that demonstrated how precision agriculture reaches across engineering, crop and soil science, and economics, showing how one particular farming practice could improve management decisions. I then became interested in the equipment and technology side of the field. I earned both my B.S. and M.S. in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at UK.

For four years, I was a technician for the USDA’s National Soil Dynamics Lab in Auburn, Alabama. Here I focused on how equipment interacts with the soil. I then worked full-time with Mississippi State University Extension, while pursuing my Ph.D. in Biological Engineering. I also worked with AGCO Corporation, a large diversified ag company, where I focused on helping to deliver precision ag tools to a global-scale market.

I joined NC State as an assistant professor in November 2017. I teach BAE 361: Analytical Methods and Engineering Design, a hands-on and applied machine design course with a focus on using modern design tools, like 3D modeling and finite element analysis (internal view of a component to understand design). Most of my time is dedicated to research and extension, focusing on sensors, data analytics, and digital farming tools.


NC State: Define precision agriculture. Tell me about your research with precision agriculture.

JW: Precision agriculture is a huge field, but two things to focus on are (1) Scale and (2) Data-driven Decision Making. Considering Scale, precision agriculture is no longer a specific technology suite, yet it’s a technology-enabled methodology that allows us to manage fields (and even animals) on a smaller scale. We used to manage on the field scale; now, we use technology to manage a 1-acre area inside of the field, enabling focus on a much finer scale. Quantified, data-driven decisions offer the ability to measure things about a crop, like yield, moisture, and the use of fuel and fertilizer on the field. This data can be compared to historical field practices, enabling farmers to make informed decisions about future crop management.

Modern tractors are mobile IOT devices; one of my projects involves using a diagnostic port inside a tractor cab, which develops huge volumes of data. Attaching this device with a cell modem to the tractor enables the producer to observe the tractor in real-time, in order to access information, like fuel consumption, field efficiency and torque generation, and analyze whether the machine size is appropriate for maximum efficiency and fuel usage.


NC State: What is your role with NC State Extension? Does your work impact the local, regional and national community?

JW: In my NC State Extension role: (1) I help people better use tools they already have in operation. Machines are collecting information; Extension offers guidance on how to manage data, understand its value and choose an appropriate data partner; (2) I work with producers who are interested in using drones, helping them consider appropriate, safe and legal use that is beneficial to the community; and (3) I share information via face-to-face seminars, webinars and various online tools. I recently launched The Advanced Ag podcast, and my colleague Dr. Bill Hunt produces the Stormwater Circuit Riders podcast. While our work certainly has long-term regional and national implications, my heart is focused on NC producers and ensuring we offer the right tools for their success.


NC State: How do you engage students in your research? In extension?

JW: I am actively seeking graduate students to participate in my research. I seek students who are tech savvy, possess an agricultural foundation (although not required), ready to actively engage with tools and willing to learn on-the-fly. Students currently working with me are writing software, learning tractor technology and wiring sensors. It’s hands-on learning at its finest as students get to learn really cool things in the field.

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