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The ability of farmland to produce food is in ever-increasing demand. A growing population, environmental concerns, and a very real labor shortage are daily heightening the imperative for agriculture to increase productivity while stretching resources farther. That’s the idea behind the technologies and practices that are collectively know as precision agriculture.
Precision ag is changing farming fast, and from all sides. The AgTech industry brings new products and studies every year, ranging from the strange and speculative to the eminently practical. Here we’ll take a look at a few of the trends that are pushing AgTech forward and vying for farmers’ attention.
Machine Intelligence Changes In-Field Labor
You might have heard that the farms of the future will be manned exclusively by hordes of autonomous robots. While that seems unrealistic given what we know today, forecasters do predict an explosion in ag robotics in the coming decades.
Ag robotics arguably started around twenty years ago with GPS-equipped autonomous tractors and is becoming widespread with things like auto steer technology. Now in development are intelligent, independent machines for just about every farming job you can imagine.
The two key technologies making this possible are computer vision and machine learning.
It’s one thing for a computer to navigate with GPS coordinates; give it the ability to “see” through a camera and teach it to recognize things like pigweed or aphids, and you’re a lot closer to something that can make simple decisions in real time.
We’re seeing this take hold in growing adoption of herbicide application equipment that rolls over crops and delivers small amounts of treatment to weeds only, which can save farmers money and labor while reducing environmental impact.
The most prominent example is Blue River Technology’s See & Spray. Other examples of innovative machine learning are companies like Arva Intelligence that help farmers harvest existing data for input cost optimizations.
The machines most like the typical image of a robot are showing up in the fruit industry.
Labs have been working on robotic arms sensitive enough to pick ripe berries without crushing them. Last year, the Belgian company, Octinion, made a splash when it debuted a completely autonomous strawberry-picking robot.
Though it’ll be awhile before these machines are common in US fields, companies like Australia-based Agerris are making more affordable versions that can do all this and more, including herding livestock.
Drone Imagery Promises Better Mapping
Drones are another technology that have captured the public imagination in the past decade. Spatial imaging using satellites is commonplace in agriculture, and drones are basically less costly, customizable versions of satellites.
Because appearance is a lagging indicator of crop health, aerial imagery has only gone so far in crop management. Right now, the best practicable application of drones is in saving time spotting issues with farm infrastructure and livestock.
Drones that use machine vision for plant counting are also beginning to gain some traction among farmers. A few products for spraying and seeding are out there as well, but those uses are largely still anticipated.
The next major phase for drone use is in field scouting and mapping. Data analytics are gradually improving their capabilities to layer maps and derive insights.
As with all these technologies, drones will see limited adoption until they can produce information that meaningfully informs farmers’ decision-making in a cost-effective manner.
Maximizing Seed Potential with Biotechnology
Biotechnology doesn’t present the captivating gadgetry of robotics, but it might be the area where agtech is most powerfully changing the food supply.
Since CRISPR-Cas9 became a reality in the mid-2010s, gene editing research has been initiated across almost all major food crops. Some controversy still exists around these developments, but gene editing does have the potential to produce hardier, more productive plants that require less chemicals and highly desirable qualities in current circumstances.
Waxy corn is a robust variety grown widely for use in food products and other industries, but it’s proven a little tricky to cultivate. DuPont Pioneer is expected to have a higher-yielding, less temperamental hybrid seed on the market anytime.
We’re only now seeing the first commercialized CRISPR-edited products as the process is still very much in the research phase, but keep an eye out in the grocery store: there will undoubtedly be more.
Gene editing also has potential beyond the development of new food crops, as some labs explore bioengineered microbes as fertilizer aids.
Syncing It All Up
When these smart systems are able to aggregate data from many sources at once via the Internet of Things, they become capable of producing what’s most valuable to farmers: actionable information.
Farm management softwares, now commonplace, are only improving, with John Deere and The Climate Corporation helping to lead the data revolution in agriculture. There are undoubtedly questions and pitfalls to be navigated here, and as always, the technologies that succeed will be the ones with a clear economic benefit to farmers.
That’s where we see tools stepping in, when they are designed specifically to help save money and increase yield. Last year, management software company Conservis launched a tool called Zone Economics that compares and evaluates the financial efficiency of fields.
Many companies have been investing in communications and support systems to build into their softwares. Data analytics are also enabling better market insights to connect growers, suppliers, and buyers.
One example is Bushel, a company building platforms to automate communications across the grain industry. Another is AgVend, which simplifies the traditionally tricky process of buying chemicals by finding the best prices and plans for farmers’ specific needs.
These and many other data platforms are streamlining the entire supply chain, hopefully giving farmers more agency in their operations.
Sophisticated as they are, these technologies are up against surprisingly simple challenges. Many of them rely on cell signals, which farmers can tell you don’t always reach as far as developers think.
Additionally, farming is a seasonal business, so there’s only one crop per year to test out new systems on. Pair that relatively slow pace with the high learning curve of experimental technologies, and you get an industry that is generally cautious about the technologies it decides to bank on.
However, it’s an undeniably exhilarating time for the agriculture industry. These emerging tools have the power to feed more people with a lower environmental impact than ever before.
At the same time, farming is inevitably governed by practical concerns. America’s farmland may one day be operated more from control rooms, but that day will come no sooner than it makes practical sense for the farmers holding the controls.
Investing with AcreTrader
While it is important to note that an investment in an AcreTrader offering is much more of an investment in the land itself rather than a farming operation, our team stays abreast on industry trends and emerging technologies so that we can be a resource for the farmers that we work with.
If you’re interested in making a passive investment in the agriculture sector, check out the current offerings on AcreTrader today!
Additional Note: The information above is not intended as investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. For additional risk disclosures regarding farmland investing and the risks of investing on AcreTrader, please see individual farm offering pages as well as our terms and conditions.