When you think of farmers, you don’t necessarily think of innovation in the technology space but today’s agricultural industry is becoming more and more dependent on technology every day. Some of it is related to the fact that the latest generation of farmers, unlike their parents and grandparents, grew up around technology and they are completely comfortable with it and they understand the competitive advantage. A lot of the dependence on technology, though, is being driven by the need of farmers to get better results: they need to improve yields and lower costs in order to feed a growing planet and not go bankrupt in the process.
The growing use of technology at all levels of agriculture is not lost on tech companies and they are starting to make investments in developing agricultural-specific tools and products, especially in three key areas: automation, data analysis and unmanned aerial vehicles or drones as we like to call them.
When a farmer mentions automation, what she is talking about is the need to find ways to harvest and package produce with as little human labor as possible. The agricultural industry is suffering from significant labor shortages for a couple of reasons. First, our country’s immigration policies are making it more difficult for the majority of the traditional farm labor, the illegal immigrant coming up from south of the border, to enter the US and improving economies in Central and South America are keeping many of those laborers at home. That means the there are fewer hands to pick the crops, so farmers are finally doing what most other industries have already done: investing in automating simple human tasks. Just like car companies have built factories that can manufacturer cars without human workers, ag companies are hoping to develop an entire new area of technological innovation that can build a device that can pick a strawberry or a head of lettuce better than a field worker. With plentiful labor and low costs in the past, it wasn’t worth exploring but the current economic realities are forcing their hand. And, much to their surprise, they are finding it easier to do than they thought.
The only way farmers to improve their crop yields and feed a hungrier world is to use data analysis, or what we call Big Data, to collate the mountains of data they have historically collected to get better information to improve the way they grow. Even today, many farming operations in the US rely on intuition and the tribal knowledge that they accumulated over the years to make decisions, which sometimes means they place the wrong bet and crops fail. Using Big Data, farmers can take more of the risk out of their planting decisions, improving their results.
Drones are also playing an increasingly important role in ag, primarily in the area of food safety and surveillance. And, if you’re like me, you grew up idolize those daring crop dusters in their biplanes as they buzzed the fields laying down a a cloud of pesticides behind them. Well, those guys are getting older and it’s become cheaper to replace a crop duster with a human pilot with a drone that can be programmed for precise actions.
Ag is changing and embracing the world of technology, but it has to if we’re to meet the future demands of a growing planet.