Technology Can Secure Agriculture’s Future
By The Beta District
The practice of agriculture dates back between 10,000 and 25,000 years, depending on which sources you’re reading. The adoption of technology in agriculture over the past several years, however, is essential to countering a slew of challenges that are threatening the future of farming. These include the explosive growth of the human population – expected to reach 10 billion by mid-century – whose food needs our current resources simply won’t be able to meet. Then there’s the scarcity and expense of supplies and labor, both of which are problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, there’s climate change, which McKinsey notes is associated with both the “economic impact of catastrophic weather events and social pressures, including the push for more ethical and sustainable farm practices.”
In Ohio, home to about 75,000 farms, these threats are particularly concerning. Food and agriculture comprise the largest industry in the state, contributing about $124 billion annually to Ohio’s economy.
In the face of these existential threats, the agricultural technology industry is attracting massive investments to achieve a variety of goals, including increasing the efficiency and speed of agricultural work, optimizing growing conditions, and predicting problems before they arise. This post will outline how some of the latest technologies in agriculture are being applied in each of these areas.
Increasing efficiency and speed of agricultural work
The goal of these technologies is to do many farming tasks historically handled by people quicker and faster by using machines instead. Farm automation – also known as “smart farming” – is a prime example of this. Much of the typical equipment seen on a farm – tractors, harvesters, seeders, and waterers – can be automated using computers and software. These machines can “perform targeted interventions based on connected-data, GPS data, and imagery analysis,” which translates to reduced labor costs, better use of resources, and increased productivity.
Advances in agricultural technology can also improve the management of livestock. Just like retail stores do with clothing and electronics, farmers can use radio frequency identification technology to keep track of their livestock to gain insights into the movement and health of their herds. “All this data generated is being turned into meaningful, actionable insight where producers can look quickly and easily to make management decisions,” states innovation incubator Plug and Play.
Optimizing growing conditions in smart greenhouses
As the effects of climate change worsen, many see the future of agriculture moving indoors, into greenhouses. But these aren’t your grandparents’ greenhouses. They’re high-tech buildings featuring energy-efficient LED lights, automated temperature and water control systems, and machines that can be programmed to lift rows of plants at different points in the growing cycle to make room for others.
Plug and Play estimates that about $350 billion worth of vegetables are grown in greenhouses worldwide each year. The United States accounts for only one percent of that market, but is poised to grow because of the efficiencies that new technology in agriculture can produce. In a 2020 Forbes article, AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb said that his 60-acre Kentucky facility produces similar yields to what 1,500 to 1,800-acre farms in California do, while using up to 90 percent less water.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of people in the renewable energy space move over to agriculture as it becomes more infrastructure- and technology-focused, and as we rebuild farms across America,” Webb said.
Predicting problems through agricultural technology
A host of new agricultural technologies allows farmers to control myriad aspects of their operations – including temperature, moisture, soil condition, pest management, humidity and more. Devices like remote sensors and unmanned drones can automatically collect large amounts of data across huge swaths of land faster and more effectively than a human ever could.
Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, precision agriculture platforms such as CropX or Arable can take the data recorded by sensors and drones and feed it into an algorithm that provides granular insights into the health of a farmer’s crops. Precision farming can help farmers make important decisions, including “enabling remote interventions to boost yield and reduce losses from pests, as well as optimizing deployment costs,” McKinsey writes.
Testing is crucial to adopting new agricultural technology
The United States lags behind many other developed countries in fully embracing agricultural technology. But recent improvements in the speed, capacity, and reach of the nation’s connectivity presents an unprecedented opportunity to narrow that gap and bring the benefits of advanced agricultural technology to America’s farmers. Ohio farmers are already beginning to see the fruits of that labor.
“A farmer told me recently, ‘I look at the challenges we are facing, and I welcome them.’” Ohio Director of Agriculture Dorothy Pelanda told Edible Columbus magazine in 2019. “Food and agriculture, I believe, has remained the number one industry in Ohio because farmers continue to be innovative.”
The Beta District exists to advance those efforts. Home to several Living Labs that provide high-tech proving grounds in both rural and urban areas, The Beta District is an optimal location for companies looking to develop and test new AgTech products in a real-world environment.