Ask city dwellers what an American farmer looks like and it’s likely that they’ll describe an image reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting: a man sporting overalls and a John Deere hat, bouncing his daughter on his lap as he steers a combine through his corn fields. In truth, today’s agrarian ideal is much different. Instead of rusty tractors working the land, fields are hooked up with the same modern technology used in Silicon Valley.
As part of our continuing coverage of FarmNext’s nationwide listening tour on food and young farmers, NationSwell talked to a few tech-savvy individuals building systems that can more efficiently feed America.
Trevor Witt, a third-year student at Kansas State University in Salina, spends most of his days flying unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. He’s involved in a project in the school’s entomology department — with “the bug guys,” as he says — studying techniques for early detection of invasive species. Witt spent the summer mapping sorghum fields, looking for evidence of an aphid that can ruin an entire harvest in just a few weeks. “If you can detect that aphid early on, you can spray that specific area to get rid of it,” Witt explains. With a camera shooting in high-resolution visuals and near-infrared imagery, Witt’s drone flies over fields of crops, looking for a shiny, sugar-dense resin on the top of leaves and a black underside — the telltale sign of this aphid’s infestation.
Witt, who dates his interest in unmanned aircraft to his high school shop class, says the primary goal of his research at K-State is “dealing with information overload.” His team is “translating all this data that we can collect and make actionable solutions,” he says. “Earlier, using satellites, the data pixel had a 15-acre resolution; now data pixel resolution is sub-centimeter. It just gets significant amounts of data even in the smallest field.”
For now, the farmer must take action against the infestation himself. But eventually, perhaps a decade from now, a grower won’t have to do a thing: he’ll have another drone or self-driven tractor that can automatically spray the area. “That’s the end goal when it comes to mapping,” Witt says. Unmanned aircraft systems aren’t the end-all solution, he concedes, but it’s “an extra tool in the toolkit.”
To lay the optimal number of eggs, a hen needs a full 16 hours of light. That’s an impossibly high bar for small farmers to reach during the winter, when a December day at California’s Riverdog Farms, for example, only receives eight and a half hours of sunshine — causing production to drop anywhere from 30 to 60 percent. (During that time, chickens continue to consume the same amount of feed.) Most large farms employ artificial lighting to stimulate production, but the cost can be prohibitively high for small-scale farmers to invest in the technology.
Egg producers “take those seasonal changes pretty hard,” says Edward Silva, who developed a solar-powered supplemental lighting system called Henlight as an undergraduate at University of California, Davis. Programmed by software, the Henlight “comes on in the morning hours, a little before sunrise. The very darkest days, it comes on earlier,” he says. “It doesn’t wake [the chickens] up. Eventually they rustle up, but what’s happening is that laying hens receive the okay to reproduce through a gland on the top of their head.”
According to Silva, who grew up on a farm in the Central Valley, field data from one coop using the Henlight in Capay Valley, Calif. saw a 20 percent boost in egg production — laying an additional 2,253 eggs — compared to a control group. Sold at $3 a dozen, the farmer made $563, meaning that he got a return on the $450 investment in the first year.
“There’s this movement where tech in ag is becoming much more democratic,” says Silva. “Smaller farms can optimize their operations as well. With Uber, anyone can be a taxi driver; with Aribnb, anyone can open a hotel. In agriculture, with a lot of precision sensors, with smartphones and drones, the systems are allowing small-scale guys to be competitive with what’s existing on a bigger level.”
Donald Gibson is trying to grow a better tomato. A graduate student at University of California, Davis is using cutting-edge biotech that would allow tomato plants to grow with far less phosphorous, a vital nutrient (along with nitrogen and potassium) that’s increasingly costly and environmentally damaging to extract for fertilizer. When lacking phosphorous, a tomato expends much of its energy expanding its root system. By identifying and switching off the gene that activates that response, the fruit could grow with much less of the nutrient.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have earned the wrath from the organic crowd for altering a plant’s fundamentals, but Gibson argues his research will make agriculture sustainable. “Today we’re seeing a major shift in advances in plant breeding. There’s been a boom in the biotech field in the last 20 or 30 years, a technology revolution and also a biological revolution. Now finally, we’re using brand new technology and adapting that to select better and better plants,” he says. “When it comes to GMOs, it’s actually getting a lot better from the consumer perspective.” Most of the innovation in the field has benefited farmers, but the next generation will benefit consumers with products like a potato that doesn’t bruise or an apple that doesn’t brown as quickly.
FarmLink is employing analytics to help farmers decipher big data and turn it into actionable items, moving agriculture from maps on paper that tracked annual yields to create more precise information. “There is plenty of data out there, and the data increases every day. It’s not that we need more data,” says Kevin Helkes, FarmLink’s director of operations. “Farmers are saying they need to know what to do with that data.”
Helkes compares the farmers’ fields to a front lawn. “There’s always that part of the yard that’s higher, where the grass grows taller. It’s the same thing in the field. Farmers know that year over year, this area is higher and this area is lower,” he says. What’s new, though, is that data analytics will be able to tell a farmer how productive those high and low areas could potentially be. Instead of a grower learning the hard way that he’s been wasting money on a fallow spot of land, FarmLink can communicate in advance how much he can expect from an area.
Agriculture’s first great revolution was switching from a donkey towing a plow to a tractor trailer. Now, agriculture has reinvented itself with new improvements in genetics and feed. This is called Ag 3.0.
(Homepage photograph: Courtesy of Gregory Urqiaga/University of California, Davis)