5 technologies that are making farms smarter and more efficient than ever before

Feeding a growing population and coping with global warming will require a global agricultural revolution

Published March 18, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Alex Brandon)
(AP/Alex Brandon)

What Allison Morrill Chatrchyan has been hearing from farmers in recent years makes it difficult to buy President Donald Trump’s claim that global warming is a Chinese hoax. Perhaps more than climate researchers themselves, farmers have their pulse on the weather and know it’s getting weird out there.

“They’re seeing changes now,” the director of Cornell University’s Institute for Climate Smart Solutions told Salon. “Farmers are talking about an increase in uncertainty.” This uncertainty includes a gradual increase in weather extremes. In the northeastern United States, global warming is causing progressively longer growing seasons and heavy rainfall interspersed with periods of drought.

These changing environmental conditions are part of why Cornell offers online tools for farmers in the region to obtain real-time data that helps them predict things like the important stages of crop development, the chances of pest and disease outbreaks and whether there will be a deficit or surplus of water. The data allows farmers to plug in their zip codes to obtain recent and 15- or 30-year local conditions, helping them forecast how climate change will affect their current season as the needles of temperature and humidity gradually shift every year. February’s spring-like weather that caused Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees to blossom prematurely might disappoint tourists to the nation’s capital this spring, but for a small farm, screwy seasonal transitions like that can be economically crippling.

What Chatrchyan and her team in Ithaca, New York, are doing is part of a much larger technological revolution going on in agricultural production. With the world’s population expected to grow more than 20 percent and top 9 billion people by the middle of the century (up from 7.4 billion today) advents such as advanced sensors, robotics, bioengineering and highly granular real-time data analysis will play an increasing role in feeding the world. And the private sector is paying heed -- Boston Consulting Group estimates that venture capital agribusiness investment more than tripled to $3 billion from 2013 to 2015 as investors flocked to cash in on the rapid pace of innovation in an industry that has traditionally lagged in adopting new technologies.

One of the most important areas of agriculture technology has to do with water management. Precise measurements of how much water is needed, and when, help farmers maximize their crop yields while minimizing the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and conserve water along the way. For example, Wi-Fi-enabled sensors beam data back to an on-site computer connected to an irrigation system whose precise instructions derived from agricultural research can be programmed and automated.

“For years, researchers have been coming up with optimal-growth strategies on how to properly irrigate a crop,” David Kohanbash, founder of Mayim, a two-year-old startup that designs and sells intelligent sensor-based irrigation systems, told Salon. 

But these emerging agricultural technologies are worthless if only enormous multinational companies or big farming operations can afford them. The challenge is how to spread these innovations broadly, especially in poorer countries that with highly inefficient farming methods.

“Making the smart farming concept ubiquitous requires some work that could come from government policy,” said Saverio Romeo, chief analyst at technology market research firm Beecham Research, who has researched how agriculture is adopting the Internet of Things approach to agriculture.

Some of this is already taking place through efforts by public land grant universities like Cornell and global nonprofit organizations. As with any technology, high up-front costs limit access but become less expensive as they scale. In a few decades, some of the latest innovations could become commonplace in developed countries and at least solidly present in poorer places.

“We’re doing a lot of work in Africa and other parts of the world,” Chatrchyan said, referring to efforts to spread the technology underpinning Cornell’s smart farming program.

Here are five important innovations helping to drive the smart-farming revolution:

Wi-Fi-connected crops

A modern farm typically has electronic sensors distributed throughout the field that can monitor for different conditions; in some cases the gadgets send data to an on-the-farm server or to the cloud (the network of servers increasingly used for the computing and data processing). These data are analyzed automatically, sending instructions to a farm’s automated irrigation system, which in some cases can even add the appropriate dose of fertilizer if necessary before delivering the right amount of water through drip tape, hoses with holes punched in them that run along crop rows.

This maximizes efficiency, delivering just the right amount of water intermittently, preventing waste and mitigating fertilizer runoff. The farmer can access this data through tablets or smartphones, giving real-time information that in the past would require a slower, manual-intensive soil-testing process. Connected crop technology can also monitor other soil conditions, such as nitrogen levels that inform farmers where and when to add fertilizer.

“Liveware” gene editing

Despite the controversy over genetically modified foods, gene editing is increasingly important for staple crops, as global population increases and global warming continue to accelerate. Setting aside the important debates about trademarked seeds or the right for consumers to know if the foods they purchase contain genetically modified ingredients, farmers can edit a plant’s DNA sequence (sometimes referred to as “liveware”) to be more resilient to climate change, consume less water and increase yields. This is particularly important for staple crops like rice and wheat, whose low yields can lead to food shortages or price spikes that harm impoverished communities. For example, gene editing by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute is producing strains of rice that consume less water and provide more nutrients. The institute has created more than 800 varieties of rice deployed to nearly 80 countries, according to the website of the global nonprofit group.

Robot farmers

The rapid pace of development in self-driving cars is also happening on the farm. Self-driving tractors and robots are becoming more common as a way to control payroll costs by automating time-consuming tasks done by humans. There are farming robots for picking lettuce and strawberries, for mowing hayharvesting oranges and pruning grapevines. Some attach to human-driven tractors while others are highly customizable with sensors and attachments that can perform highly specific tasks, such as detecting where cows have peed and treating the affected grass to stimulate regrowth. These robots are often guided by highly precise GPS tracking that allows them to nimbly navigate through the narrow spaces between crop rows.

Eyes in the sky

Mapping technology is a vital part of data-driven agriculture, and getting those maps is easier and more cost-effective than ever before thanks to the explosive growth in drone technology. These small, affordable unmanned aerial vehicles give farmers a bird’s eye view of their crops and can be operated by the farmers themselves. The drones fly autonomously, taking instructions wirelessly from sophisticated GPS data.

Because farmers can launch these drones frequently, they can build a time-series animation of their fields throughout the growing season. That data can be used to identify how a crop behaves in one growing season in order to make adjustments in the next. These drones come with multiple sensors, giving farmers two types of visuals: basic digital photographs that show areas where plants are suffering from irrigation or pest and fungus infestations that are harder to find at ground level, and multi-spectral infrared images that can identify healthy and distressed plants in ways that can’t be seen with conventional photography or the human eye.  

Wavelength management

Urban and vertical indoor farming is becoming more popular, giving growers of specialty crops ways to produce year-round regardless of outdoor weather conditions. But one challenge has been how to produce the ideal wavelengths of sunlight that optimize growth in cramped indoor spaces.

Traditionally indoor lighting promoting plant growth has been done with energy-intensive and expensive full-spectrum fluorescent lighting, but advances in light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in recent years have provided a cheaper and better alternative. Modern agricultural LEDs reduce growing times compared to previous lighting because farmers can use different configurations to maximize the wavelengths of light certain plants prefer. For example, certain combinations of red and blue LEDs can reduce the amount of time it takes to grow a head of lettuce indoors by up to 17 days. Hooking LEDs to timers allows indoor farmers to maximize the ratio of light to dark that can further speed up the growing process.

By Angelo Young

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Agtech Drones Gene Editing Gmos Innovation