Farmer working on a tablet in the field

Want to Cultivate a High-Tech Career? Be a Farmer

The digital side of growing food

In a cilantro field about 60 miles southeast of Silicon Valley, California, a tractor moves efficiently through the field. Auto-steer systems use GPS receivers to keep rows straight and avoid gaps or overlap as the soil is tilled. The acreage can be worked day and night, with computers reading sensor input and using automation to navigate. There is no human operator inside the cab of the tractor.

Tech startup Bear Flag Robotics is delivering more than just plowed fields. The company is building systems to convert existing tractors into autonomous farm vehicles.

Agriculture faces many growing challenges, including how to sustainably feed a global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This is amid loss of arable land for cultivation while battling the effects of climate change and fluctuations in the commodities market. Emerging technology in agriculture may provide the best solutions to overcome these problems.

Because agriculture is the nation’s biggest land use, there is also a great responsibility for conservation and environmental stewardship of soil, water, climate and biodiversity. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a program to stimulate innovation in agriculture. The goal is increasing food production by 40 percent while cutting agriculture’s environmental footprint in half by 2050.

Ag’s tech history
People working in agriculture are no strangers to using computers, data and automation to improve crop yields. The ag-tech revolution began with Precision Agriculture (PA) in the early 1980s. The University of Minnesota would soon play a key role.

UM researchers varied lime inputs in crop fields. Around the same time, grid sampling—applying a fixed grid of one sample per hectare—emerged. By the end of the ’80s, these two elements were being used to create the first input recommendation maps. Farmers could maximize profits by applying fertilizer and other inputs only where needed.

Today, PA is defined as “a technology-enabled approach to farming management that observes, measures, and analyzes the needs of individual fields and crops.”

Two farmers working in a field with a tablet

Smart farming

Smart farming followed, applying information and data technologies, optimizing complex farming systems. Whereas PA focused on the precise measurement or differences in a field, Smart farming focused on how the collection of data could be used in an intelligent way. This includes all farm operations, not just machines. A farmer can use a mobile device to access and apply real time data about weather, terrain, soil condition, available personnel, finances and so much more. Smart farming shifts decision making from intuition to robust data to make informed decisions.

Digital farming
Digital farming integrates both Precision Agriculture and Smart farming. PA developments in farming technologies, including sensors and satellites, robotics, drones and automation are enhanced with the intelligent networks and data management tools of Smart farming. Digital farming enables the automation of sustainable processes in agriculture, like the unmanned tractor in a California cilantro field.

Digital farming also reaches farther into broad sources of data, using internal and external networking and integration of internet-based platforms. The practice depends on the mass collection of farming data from sensors, drones and satellites, which is then applied in innovative ways, such as creating labor efficiencies, or new applications, value or products. Artificial Intelligence-based tools are used to analyze big data at lightning fast speed, sending useful information back to farmers for critical decision-making right in the field.

Some rural areas, however, still have little or no internet access. USDA initiated FarmBeats, a pilot project in partnership with Microsoft which transmits data from the field via TV white spaces, the unused broadcasting frequencies between television channels, to a device at the farm, then onto the cloud. Field sensors track soil temperature, humidity, acidity and water levels. A weather station tracks air temperature, precipitation and wind speed while a tractor outfitted with an array of sensors reviews crop heights, biomass and greenness to assess plant health. FarmBeats also uses geographic information system mapping software to aid the sustainable farming effort.

Digital farming has evolved, as promising technology and projects such as FarmBeats provide affordable, sustainable solutions to help feed the world.

Data protection must be regulated
Along with big data in any field comes a big problem—data security. Agriculture using advanced digital technology is subject to the same increased cyber risks and vulnerabilities as other industries.

As governments review the social, ethical and legal implications of the data digital farming collects, a clash over data privacy concerns has already surfaced. Farmers complained that Climate Fieldview, a Bayer-owned platform that monitors agricultural data, and Tillable, a company designed to maximize rental agreements between farmers and landowners, were sharing sensitive data which led to an increase in rental prices for farmers. While both companies denied the claim, they are no longer working together.

Without regulation, there is concern that the largest players in the market would have access to valuable information related to yields and performance. Such data could provide a market advantage to some producers.

Harvesting benefits
Digital agriculture is ripe with opportunities, hopefully within a regulatory framework that protects small farmers while reigning in giants in the field. Plowing the right course now gives everyone involved in farming the benefit of intelligent, data-driven growth and a more sustainable way of meeting our food production needs.

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