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Agriculture and technology: an essential partnership

Scott Hermes

Agriculture is an industry that has been with us for over 12,000 years. It has been crucial to our development as a species and is critical to our continued survival. It should be no surprise that technology is a key driver for agriculture, yet people not involved in the industry are often shocked at the level of technological sophistication that exists on today’s farms. But it is only by utilizing technology in agricultural processes that two percent of the US population can feed the other 98 percent.

Technology helps put food on the table for more people

According to John Deere CEO John Mays, since the global population is projected to increase by two billion over the next 25 years, and as diets change around the world, we will need to produce 50 percent more food to support that growth. At CES 2023, Jahmy Hindman, CTO of John Deere, showed technology already in use in the field that allows for targeted applications of fungicides and fertilizers, which together would reduce the costs to farmers by 1.6 billion dollars per year. John Deere has mounted ruggedized cameras and processors on their equipment that can withstand heat, dust and vibrations and can perform real-time calculations to identify the particular seed that needs the fertilizer and the specific weed that needs the fungicide, By using less fertilizer and fungicide, the risk of runoff is also reduced, which can aid in protecting our water supply.

 Automation is the new farm hand

The average age of a farmer in the US is 58 years old and one-third of the workforce is over 65. While the overall average age of the US workforce has risen from 35.3 in 2000 to 44.6 in 2020, agriculture continues to have an older workforce. Traditionally, this has been filled by younger members of the family taking over the farm and by the seasonal hiring of migrant workers.

Farmers can now “farm out” tasks that require a less skilled labor force to automation tools such as robotic harvesters and drones. Some examples:

- FarmVibes.Edge, which allows growers to capture drone imagery in the field, and

- FarmVibes.Ai, which merges data sources, like heat maps, super-res satellite                           imagery and other technologies to create a big-picture view of a farm.


Managing soil health and water conservation with technology

Soil health is an important factor in the productivity of farmland, but many US farmers face challenges related to soil erosion and the depletion of nutrients. Technology can help farmers manage soil health by providing tools for precision farming, such as precision fertilization, as well as developing new crop strains that are better suited to specific soil conditions.

Many regions of the United States are facing water scarcity, which greatly affects agriculture. Technology can help farmers conserve water by providing tools for precision irrigation and developing new crop strains that are more drought-resistant. Conversely, we are also seeing an increased number of severe weather events, such as flooding in California. Too much water at the wrong time can wipe out a crop. Creating crop strains with a shorter growing season can help farmers recover from a catastrophic flood.

The proof is in the prototype 

If technology doesn’t fit into the life of the farmer, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Kin + Carta once created a prototype that would allow growers to access a user manual through their smartwatch for a maintenance process performed on their machinery once a year. They wouldn’t have to look for the manual, set it up where they can see it, and follow step-by-step through a process they rarely performed. This would make their lives easier, we thought. We were wrong. When we field-tested the prototype with an actual farmer, the first thing he did was put on heavy-duty gloves that covered his smartwatch, thus making our app unusable.

Understanding your users and their domain is critical to successfully applying your technology.

In an article in MIT Technology Review, Josh Ruiz, the vice president of ag operations for Church Brothers, which grows greens for the food service industry, says, “You can get my attention real fast if you solve a problem for me, but what happens nine times out of 10 is the tech companies come to me and they solve a problem that wasn’t a problem.”

Key drivers for technology in agriculture - usability and profitability

Farming is a business and farmers need to make a profit. They are generally skeptical about any new technology unless you can show them the path to profitability either through lower costs or higher yields. However, they are keenly aware of how the right technology can make or break a season.

For more information about technology in agriculture, please contact us.

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