Has Commercial Agriculture Entered Its Next Tech Revolution?
Just a few decades ago, the phrase tech revolution often felt like one that should be associated with the latest sci-fi film. Most of us underestimated that rate at which the technology sector would expand — as well as how impactful it would be in our day to day lives. In most cases, the digitization of the world around us provides a means to better identify and understand trends in hopes of improving the efficiency of our lives or business operations. Sure, the rapid expansion of tech hasn’t been without some societal hurdles but, generally speaking, advances in tech often encompasses something that we can all benefit from — progress. For those not directly involved in the agriculture industry, it is often — and erroneously — quipped that commercial agriculture operations are laggards when it comes to implementing new technology. However, for those of us with boots on the ground in the industry, we recognize that the commercial farming sector has quickly become the target industry for some of the most innovative and exciting technological advances of our generation. That’s why we decided to explore ag-tech from a 30,000’ view as we ask ourselves, is commercial agriculture experiencing another tech revolution?
Commercial Agriculture has no Choice but to Expand
Those who aren’t farmers seldom ponder over the countless decisions and touchpoints that are considered for every farmed good that is lackadaisically tossed into carts being pushed down grocery aisles. This out of sight, out of mind mentality is likely a large contributing factor behind why non-farmers frequently assume that the agriculture industry is last in line to adopt new technology.
Although there could be some validity behind this sentiment which could be applied to the early days of the industrial revolution — tech adoption by farmers has been growing since The Green Revolution of the mid 20th century. It was around this time that world leaders began to recognize the rising rate of population growth as well as the pending risk of food supply not meeting global demand if programs weren’t put into place to incentivize commercial agricultural expansion.
Roughly 70 years later, global population levels have continued to rise, and commercial agriculture has been left with no choice but to expand. With time and labor often serving as the crux of agricultural operation expansion, it often feels as though the dawn of the artificial intelligence and machine learning era couldn’t have arrived at a better period in time. Let’s look at some of the exciting advances that are not only making the lives of farmers easier, but also creating opportunities to reduce food shortages and crop loss in a sustainable, eco-friendly manner.
The Cutting Edge Tech Helping Feed the World
With the current global population of around eight billion people expected to reach ten billion in the next 35 years, it should come as no surprise that many tech brands are focused on improving agricultural processes. Recent advances in A.I. and machine learning have been the shining stars in terms of reducing burdensome labor requirements on large-scale commercial operations, as well as optimized sensor development, genetic engineering, data-processing, and trend forecasting capabilities. The next time you find yourself lost in the Muzak of your local supermarket, consider the following revolutionary technology that may have played a role in filling your cart.
Agricultural Drones – Sure, we’re all familiar with the consumer-grade backyard drones that are all fun and games until they get stuck in your neighbor’s tree, but several of the companies behind consumer drone production are also creating state-of-the-art agricultural drones. Some brands like DJI even maintain in-house agricultural development teams aimed at developing drones to specifically aid farmers. Modern agricultural drones are being used for a sundry of tasks around the farm, including but not limited to harvesting crops, precision pesticide and fertilizer application, and even automated plant stand counts.
Autonomous Machinery – From tilling, weeding, sowing, harvesting, and all of the other tasks that commercial farmers rely on heavy equipment for, they all have at least one thing in common — they traditionally require highly trained human labor to operate. However, this is quickly becoming a problem of the past as numerous equipment producers have shifted their focus to autonomous, self-driving machinery. With fully autonomous solutions available and more on the way from well-known brands like John Deere, farmers now have access to tools that can significantly reduce problem areas like labor and daylight requirements, and human errors, all while providing valuable data surrounding certain conditions in your fields.
Automated Real-Time Pest Monitoring – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that up to 40% of crop loss (~$220 billion) can be attributed to pests. With numbers like these, it is easy to understand why companies like FarmSense are leading the charge to use A.I. and machine learning to improve pest monitoring tools. For decades, farmers have relied on inaccurate sticky traps to determine pest pressure, but the minimal data collected from this antiquated tool is almost always outdated, inaccurate, and labor intensive. Thanks to advances in available tech and the use of optical sensors to create the world’s largest digital wingbeat database of insects, FarmSense’s FlightSensor gives farmers a real-time view of the pests in their fields as well as climatological conditions. Technology like this can significantly reduce the need for frequent preventative pesticide applications, resulting in lower operating costs for farmers and a sustainable approach to integrated pest management (IPM) practices.
Precision Agriculture – It could be argued that the overarching theme of commercial agriculture’s current tech revolution falls into the category of precision farming. Precision farming — also referred to as precision agriculture — is simply the act of data-driven decision making. Considering that research suggests the average farm currently generates over 500,000 data points daily, it should serve as no surprise that tech brands are incorporating these large swaths of data into the latest ag-tech products. With the ability to process copious amounts of historical data, tech brands recognize the value of identifying trends and patterns — especially for farmers. Not only does precision agriculture practices provide actionable insight for farmers, but it can also help in efforts to operate in a more sustainable manner. For instance, a farmer with accurate data around pest pressure can tailor their pesticide applications to better target the problem, instead of the traditional — and often wasteful — preventative maintenance applications. Another example would be soil amendments and/or moisture levels. A farmer with detailed data from soil sensors may believe their soil is due for additional irrigation or fertilizers, only to discover through precision agriculture tools that the soil is actually in no need of extra inputs — thus conserving resources while improving their profit margins.
One peek behind the scenes of modern commercial agriculture will dispel any misconceptions that the industry is lagging in terms of new and exciting technology. The beauty of the current technological revolution that agriculture is experiencing is that many of the new developments are not only poised to improve a farmer’s output but are also making tasks more environmentally friendly and sustainable. As regulators and policymakers continue to feel the pressure to regulate the environmental impact of commercial farming, the onset of new data-driven devices may eventually play a vital role in saving the farm.