Here’s why farmers are more tech-savvy than you

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I’m willing to bet you still picture farming as a relatively low-tech industry. Cut to: hardworking farmer riding an old tractor through a small plot of land. While this may still be the reality on some farms, we are in the midst of the third, and most monumental, agriculture revolution. Over $4.6 billion in investment has been poured into agriculture tech companies, triggering a new age of Digital Farming, also known as Precision Farming or Smart Farming.

74% of farmers said that digital agriculture technologies provide efficiencies and environmental benefits.

Wait, what is the agricultural revolution?

The first agriculture revolution came along during the advent of increased mechanization, from 1900-1930. Each farmer produced enough food to feed about 26 people during this time. The 1990s-now saw new methods of genetic modification, which led to each farmer feeding about 155 people. Genetic modification is controversial, but it did lead to a huge increase in food supply. But by 2050, world population will reach about 9.6 billion, and we will need to effectively double food production from current levels in order to feed every mouth. Enter: The Digital Farming revolution. Each farmer will be able to feed 265 people on the same acreage. That’s insanity, and it’s already starting to happen.

The first wave of the revolution will come in the forms of satellite and aerial imagery, weather prediction, variable rate fertilizer application, and crop health indicators. The second wave will aggregate the machine data for even more precise planting, topographical mapping, and soil data. That may seem like a bunch of jargon, but the capabilities are incredible.

 

You guessed it: self-driving cars, IoT, and drones

Let’s focus first on the center-stage technological improvements to physical equipment. Self-steering tractors have existed for some time now, as John Deere equipment works like a plane on autopilot. The tractor does most of the work, with the farmer stepping in for emergencies.  We’re moving towards a future where driverless machinery is programmed by GPS to spread fertilizer or plow land. Other innovations include a solar powered machine that identifies weeds and precisely kills them with a dose of fertilizer, or maybe in an organic future, lasers. Packing robots, also known as AgBots, already exist, but harvesting robots are being developed to identify ripe fruits, adjust to their shape and size, and carefully pluck them from branches.

The Internet of Things comes into play with the development of sensors and farm- management software. Farmers can now spectroscopically measure nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in liquid manure, which is notoriously inconsistent. They can then scan the ground to see where cows have already urinated and apply fertilizer to only the spots that need it. This cuts fertilizer use by up to 30%. Moisture sensors in the soil determine the best times to remotely water plants. The irrigation systems can be programmed to switch which side of tree trunk they water based on the plant’s need and rainfall. Innovations are not just limited to plants—they can be used for the welfare of animals. Cattle can be outfitted with internal sensors to keep track of stomach acidity and digestive problems. External sensors track movement patterns to determine the cow’s health and fitness, sense physical injuries, and identify the optimal times for breeding. All this data from sensors can be aggregated and analyzed to detect trends and patterns.

Cue: drones and satellite imagery. Combing the two is optimal because drones take high quality images, while satellites capture the bigger picture. There is even a startup with an Uber-like arrangement of light-aircraft pilots who can combine aerial photography with data from satellite records to predict future yields based on the current level of field biomass. Aggregated images can create contour maps to track where water flows, determine variable-rate seeding, and create yield maps of areas that were more or less productive. Drones can also physically spray pesticide or fertilizer based strategically on crop density.

 

This is cool, but how does it benefit the farmer?

To be successful, a farm must grow as much per acre as it can, reduce risk of crop failure, minimize operating costs, and sell crops for the highest price possible

Digital agriculture efficiencies will help sustainability efforts in addition to increasing profits. Current inefficiencies mean that while it’s possible to harvest 530 bushels of corn per acre, the national average is a mere 168 bushels. This leaves a lot of room for yield improvement, and that’s where technology comes in. For example, almond farmers use 20% less water when they link soil moisture trackers to their irrigation systems. GPS technology on John Deere tractors reduces fuel bills, and the impact on the environment, by up to 40%. Biotech innovations that harness the power of natural microbes can reduce the stress on plants suffering from drought or salinity. Optimizing the wavelengths emitted by LEDs allows for efficient and profitable indoor farming. Combine all these innovations with big data, IoT, and visualization software—and you have increased profitability anywhere from $55-110 per acre. Save the environment, save money.

blog_how-digital-is-solving-three-problems-in-agricultureAlthough many of these innovations require upfront capital investments, small scale farms are able to benefit from the digital revolution in other ways. 1/3 of the global population still relies on agriculture for a living, but the good news is that farming is twice as effective at reducing poverty as other job sectors. For developing countries, farmers are benefitting from mobile technology, such as ConnectedFarmer, a public-private partnership with Vodaphone, USAID, and Technoserve in East Africa. This service assists farmers with mobile payments and receipts to improve agribusiness efficiencies. Additionally, 30,000 farmers in Tanzania use mobile phones for contracts, payments, loans, and business organization. Genetic engineering, although highly debated, can increase plant’s efficiency and nutrient content in poverty-stricken areas. Hopefully, more research will make high-tech machinery more affordable for farmers in developing countries, to decrease the gap between large-scale and subsistence farming.

 

Let the agricultural revolution begin!

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So, what are we waiting for? Unsurprisingly, farmers are known for being risk-averse—because one mistake could destroy an entire season of crops. And when it comes to new agriculture tech, 1/3 of farmers feel as though they receive insufficient technical support, and ½ are unsure of how to maximize profitability using these new technologies. Some technologies leave farmers with data that is difficult to interpret for decision making, but that is quickly improving thanks to the investments in agriculture technology. It’s estimated that a farmer expects a $3 gain for every $1 invested. It’s up to the agrotech companies to prove economic utility and provide adequate education.

In preparation to feed 9.6 billion mouths by 2050, farmers are getting way more tech-savvy than you.

 

7 comments

  1. drewsimenson · ·

    Great post, Katie! A good friend of mine is a total nut for drones, now works for a commercial drone company with global operations. There are applications for so many industries; my friend I believe has done a lot with mining operations as well. Have you looked into underwater drones at all? I am fascinated by how much unexplored space there is underwater on our planet and wondering when we’re going to crank up the dial on the aquanaut scene. :)

  2. joeking5445 · ·

    Thanks for the post! It sure does seem like a no brain decision to invest in this technology. How long would it take for farmer to profit off of this investment? I am wondering if their risk aversion plus the investment is making them less likely to purchase the technology. You make a great argument for the use of this tech with our population growing so rapidly.

  3. CarbNatalie · ·

    Great post! I didn’t know that half of this technology was being used in farming and that farmers are as savvy as you have suggested. The idea that these technologies can have such vast applications is indicative of the revolution that will arise from this (as suggested by one of the TED talks from this week’s upcoming discussions).

  4. lesleyzhou · ·

    Wow Katie, thanks for writing such an informative and might I add, unconventional, post! Prior to reading this I never knew the digital transformation currently undergoing the agricultural sector with the increase of harvesting robots, self-driving tractors and aerial photography via drones. I’m actually traveling to Tanzania this summer and I will definitely be asking my tour guide to elaborate on how the spread of mobile technology has allowed farmers (and the rest of the local population) to increase business/operational efficiency and professionalism. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I’m just as hopeful as you are that this agricultural revolution will help us decrease water waste from “inefficient crops” such as almonds/avocados that are trending in the nutrition sector today as well as decrease the methane secretion from cows. While I don’t see this revolution happening at a rapid pace due to the upfront fixed costs, I do hope developing countries see this as an attractive enough investment to help subsidize the costs for farmers.

  5. Fantastic post Katie! Your use of images and articles was really helpful in gaining a full picture (no pun intended) of your content. In addition, I really appreciate how you discussed the effects of tech innovations on the farmers themselves. Too often, the people who make our food are neglected by others more powerful then them, which is horrid considering how important farmers are to our lives. The cost savings and increased efficiency could significantly help farming families that are currently struggling. Not to get too political, but I think that the beneficial effects of this technology could possibly help to ease the tensions between rural voters and politicians. By helping rural voters prosper, they will feel more important and will not feel “left out” of politics as they currently do.

  6. I feel like I really learned a lot from your post! It was really cool to hear about how digital technology can help improve efficiencies in agriculture, as that is such an important industry (but also one that I have never discussed in a class at BC before). I am glad there are so many positive effects on small farmers as well.

  7. Another great post. I confess that I am fascinated with the digitization of agriculture. There are a number of startups using big data methods to improve productive and seed design. It’s really interesting stuff in an area that you wouldn’t normally think about.

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