High Tech Agriculture


March 07, 2014

“The Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet will greatly affect agricultural machines such as tractors, agricultural sprayers, harvesters, soil cultivating equipment and cow milking machines,” writes Mark van Rijmenam. “Sensors in machines, from large tractors to cow milking machines, can tell the farmer a lot of information, in real-time, 24/7 without the farmer having to be full-time available. The machines are becoming smart machines that can talk to each other as well understand their conditions.” [“From Machines to Crops to Animals: Big Data Turns Traditional Farming Upside Down,”SmartData Collective, 29 August 2013] Welcome to the world of high tech agriculture. Christina Tamer, an Investment Analyst at Invested Development, reports, “There is a lot of innovation in the mobile/IT and energy spaces that have the potential to make a huge impact on the farm. For example, smart power systems, precision agriculture tools, farm management software, and affordable sensors are all within reach of even the smallest farmers today.” [“The Impact of Technology in Agriculture,” Invested Development, 13 June 2013]

If you watched much of the Sochi Winter Olympics, you might have seen the Verizon commercial that discussed how farmers are using its wireless networks to improve operations. The Verizon video below offers a good overview of how wireless systems are currently being used.

“Today’s farmers are using all of the technology at their disposal to increase yields,” writes Vince Beiser, “which is critical if we hope to feed a rapidly growing population.” [“On America’s Farms, Data Is the New Cash Crop,” Pacific Standard, 11 September 2013] He continues:

“Increasingly, America’s millions of acres of farmland are being mapped, analyzed, planted, and harvested by computer-controlled machines that are directed much more by vast quantities of information than a plowman’s steady hand. Today, one of the most valuable crops farmers are harvesting is data. … The goal of all this is efficiency. Seeds matched to specific soils should yield bigger harvests. Tracking precisely where seeds are dropped or fertilizer is sprayed cuts down on wasteful overlapping of areas that have already been treated.”

The bottom line is, farmers who used be comfortable sitting behind the wheel of a tractor need to become just as comfortable sitting behind a computer screen. Van Rijmenam explains smart machines are going to affect almost every aspect of farming in the years ahead. He writes:

“Sensors can predict when problems are at hand and can take proper action before actual damage is done. When a problem does occur, the farmer can immediately see what the problem is and take action. If the problem will be more serious, a service employee can visit the farmer before the equipment breaks down thereby minimizing the machine-downtime. In addition, the effective use of sensors within agricultural machines can increase productivity throughout many different agricultural processes. Apart from predicting failures and maintenance, sensors can also help to save farmers a lot of fuel required for harvesting or seeding crops as well as other transportation. Computers can optimize the best driving conditions when working on the land. Especially for farmers who have a large plot of land to maintain, a computer is better able to determine the shortest route to drive when working on the land. In combination with exact coordinates of the land, the optimized road can save a lot of fuel. Combined with machine-to-machine communication, it will help the farmer control the growing number of machines at a farm. When the machines talk to each other, they know each other’s positions and can adjust accordingly if necessary. With smart machines one person can manage an entire fleet of machines, while saving time and money. In addition, the system can monitor the productivity of each machine and match that with the input to ensure optimal usage of the machine. Diagnostics manage the machines in real-time to ensure the optimal settings are used. All the data that is collected can be analysed by the farmer to better understand how the machines are operating and how the operations can be improved even further.”

One of the terms often associated with high tech agriculture is “precision farming.” The “precision” comes in many varieties from positioning equipment to using right amount of water and fertilizer. Tamer believes that the emergence of high tech agriculture will have lasting impacts in three areas: efficiency on the farm, traceability of food, and efficiency in the supply chain. Concerning farm efficiency, she writes:

Efficient farm management and resource efficiency – … A declining percentage of farmers in the world have to produce more for a growing population. Fortunately, advances in technology can have significant impact, as did irrigation systems, tractors, and other mechanical innovations in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Further, a ‘whole farm approach’ optimizes the farmer’s efficiency, including use of water, waste, soil, energy, and most importantly, time. Precision agriculture technologies, for example, can optimize fertilizer applications, saving time and money by creating a more productive field.”

The fact that the world’s food supply is going to rest in the hands of fewer farmers means that the food supply chain is going to play an increasingly important role in the decades ahead. Consumers are already beginning to ask where their food comes from and how it was grown. You might recall the 2011 Escherichia coli (or E. coli) outbreak that killed dozens and sickened thousands of people in Europe. The Germans first believed that the outbreak resulted from eating contaminated vegetables that came from outside the country. Eventually, however, the outbreak was traced to beansprouts that came from an organic farm near Hamburg. On the subject of traceability, Tamer writes:

Traceability – You’ve heard of the horse meat scandal and countless other food recalls. People want and need to know what’s in their food and where it comes from. This requires tools and processes that manage and monitor the flow of inputs. This would improve efficiency, product differentiation, food safety, and product quality. Further, traceability and transparency in the food supply benefits the farmer in the long run, by opening up opportunities to access credit and markets.”

Effective traceability programs track temperatures, humidity, and time in transit as well as revealing from which farms products originate. To learn more about the importance of traceability, read my post entitled “How Safe is Our Food?” Concerning supply chain efficiency, Tamer writes:

Supply chain efficiency – A third of the food produced annually is wasted. In the U.S., most of our food is wasted at the consumption stage. In Sub-Saharan Africa, food is wasted before it even reaches the consumer. … Whatever way you look at it, the supply chain needs to become more efficient.”

To learn more about this subject, read my post entitled “Preventing and Mitigating Food Waste.” Food wastage, of course, begins in the field (or in the orchard). Farmers, however, appreciate how much effort goes into raising each ear of corn or each piece of tree-ripened fruit. They know that each food item that spoils in the field or rots on the tree represents a monetary loss for them. So they work hard to prevent wastage and are always looking for better ways to harvest their crops and recoup their investments. Any decrease in the loss rate due to precision agriculture is most welcomed. Another period of time during which too much waste occurs is after crops have been harvested. According to John Manners Bell, Chief Executive Officer of Transport Intelligence, “Post-harvest food losses [are] a really major, major problem.” [“Role of logistics in Reducing Post-Harvest Food Losses in the Developing World,” Supply Chain Expert Community, 8 March 2013] Most of the post-harvest losses occur after crops have left the farm, and technological improvements in transportation and production are necessary to reduce such waste.

As mentioned earlier, fewer farmers are going to have to feed the world’s burgeoning population. One reason that there are going to be fewer farmers in future is that the global population continues to urbanize. More young people are fleeing farms for the city. In most developed countries there is already a shortage of farm workers. Technology could play a significant role in reducing concerns about labor shortages. According to Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea, “Farmers say farm robots could provide relief from recent labor shortages, lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, even reduce costs, increase quality and yield a more consistent product.” [“Robots To Revolutionize Farming, Ease Labor Woes,” Manufacturing.net, 15 July 2013] The article continues:

“Many sectors in U.S. agriculture have relied on machines for decades and even the harvesting of fruits and vegetables meant for processing has slowly been mechanized. But nationwide, the vast majority of fresh-market fruit is still harvested by hand. Research into fresh produce mechanization was dormant for years because of an over-abundance of workers and pressures from farmworker labor unions. In recent years, as the labor supply has tightened and competition from abroad has increased, growers have sought out machines to reduce labor costs and supplement the nation’s unstable agricultural workforce.”

The article goes on to note that smart machines, like the Lettuce Bot, can be effective in the fields; however, “fresh fruit harvesting remains the biggest challenge.” Wozniacka and Chea report that strides are being made in that area as well but we are probably a decade from seeing robots routinely harvesting fresh fruit. It should be clear that, in the future, smart technologies are going to affect every aspect of agriculture from field preparation, to planting and harvesting. Unfortunately, technology doesn’t come cheap and it may prove unaffordable for smaller farms.