The Future of Farming is Today (At Least for Now)
One of the things I love about farmers is their uncanny ability to think beyond the latest technology. As one who grew up on a farm and still farms today, hearing another grower say “Great! But what’s next?” is both a compliment and a challenge – and about as good as it gets. That’s because most farmers realize that successfully harvesting a crop is only a seasonal victory in a lifelong commitment. And when your livelihood is on the line, just being good enough today isn’t, well, good enough.
Consider the many variables with which farmers must contend: a growing population, weather fluctuations caused by a changing climate, evolving pests and weeds, scarce natural resources, volatile commodity markets and prices, increasing regulatory demands and public concerns. Through it all, they are expected to deliver enough food, fuel and fiber for our world – and do so safely and sustainably. It may be nostalgic to think of farms as ‘islands of tranquility’ in a world of chaos, but I think it’s safe to say that farming is more connected and affected by these swirling forces of change than most other industries.
That’s why I’m amused when I hear people who have never stepped on a farm describe a version of farming that seems straight out of American Gothic, the famous 1930 painting by Grant Wood depicting an austere couple – complete with overalls and pitchfork. I also enjoy their expression when I explain that some of the most cutting-edge technologies available today are occurring right on the farm. From Indiana to India, farmers around the world have an insatiable appetite for innovation, because they know that creative ingenuity is their best hope for survival in a world that is constantly changing.
At the forefront of today’s agricultural innovation is digitalization. Just as consumers have embraced the conveniences provided by personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, and smartwatches, farmers are increasingly relying on digital technologies that can analyze and transform millions of bytes of data into meaningful insights that help them make real-time decisions. What makes digital tools especially attractive to farmers is their versatility. Because no two farms are alike, a “one-size-fits-all” approach cannot possibly address the many variables that exist across fields, or even within a field. But digital tools are specifically designed and customized to cope with complexities of our natural world.
Remote sensors, satellite imagery, and drones can monitor plant health, soil conditions, temperature, nitrogen utilization, pest infestation levels, and much more. Just five years ago, the idea of using drone imagery was science fiction to most farmers, but today it is used on two out of every ten acres in the U.S. – and that number is expected to rise. In fact, Goldman Sachs predicts that the agricultural sector will be the second largest user of drones in the world in the next five years.
The beauty of digitalization is that it can work for all farms, regardless of size. As with any scalable technology, tools like drones are becoming more cost-efficient and accessible to smaller farms. It’s already happening in Ghana, where companies like AcquahMeyer Dronetech are enabling smallholder farmers who can’t afford to pay for labor, to rent drones that will cost-effectively assess and treat their crops. Recently, Bayer began a partnership with XAG to advance digital farming and precision spraying using drone application technology in Japan. The precision of the drones allows for droplet size control, which means increased spraying accuracy and reduced water and pesticide use. Digital technologies like this are helping address Japan’s food self-sufficiency crisis, which declined to a record-low 37 percent in 2018, and where more than 83 thousand workers leave the farming sector each year.
Digital tools and data science create the opportunity to transfer knowledge and farmer ‘know-how’ in a way that has never been possible before now. And one of the best tools out there is a cell phone. Nearly 70 percent of all smallholder farmers have cell phones, which opens up a huge opportunity to deliver timely and relevant agronomic data. By building off a ready-to-use device with near-universal availability, farmers can check the weather, assess pest infestations, order a product, or even operate a drone – all from the convenience of their phone. Through the Climate Corporation (Bayer’s digital ag platform) we’re helping connect farmers in rural India using FarmRise™, a free digital solution that helps bring relevant agronomic information and advice directly to a farmer’s fingertips. There’s also a chat feature so farmers can connect with one another to share best practices. One of the greatest advantages of digital tools is the ecosystem it enables us to help farmers be seamlessly connected to data from multiple sources versus just one. For example, Climate Corp has a partnership with CLAAS that provides machine-generated insights from farm equipment like yield reports and maps, average grain moisture, as well as a digital record of the field worked. When that data is combined with publicly available information, like weather reports, along with advanced AI tools from Climate Corp it gives farmers a comprehensive look to make more informed, sustainable decisions that help increase their productivity and reduce risk.
Digitalization is one of many new technological innovations that are finding a home in agriculture, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows farming. I believe digital tools and data science are going to change agriculture more than anything has changed farming in my previous 35 years. I can still picture my Dad sitting at the kitchen table at night making decisions about our farm – from pre-planting to post-harvest – the same thing that every farmer before him and every farmer after him, myself included, must consider each year. Thanks to new digital tools and data science applications, we can be more precise in our decision-making than ever before.
Wondering what the next big thing will be in agriculture? I’m betting we won’t have to wait very long.
About Brett Begemann
Brett Begemann is the Chief Operating Officer for the Crop Science division of Bayer where he ensures the company is delivering best-in-class solutions and services to farmers across the globe. As someone who grew up on a farm and still farms today, he’s a passionate advocate of modern agriculture technologies that help produce more food using less land, water and energy. Follow him at @BrettBegemann.