In today‘s information age, data is the coin of the realm. Disparate sectors, ranging from medicine and tech to sports and journalism, rely on unprecedented a mounts of data and increasingly sophisticated machines capable of processing it to make sense of the world and inform key decisions.
The agricultural world is no exception. Increased agricultural yields with minimal additional inputs have never been more vital. A 2017 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the global population will grow to roughly 10 billion by 2050, which will increase agricultural demand by 50% compared to 2013. Challenges like land scarcity, climate change, and environmentally taxing farming systems all present challenges to farmers, who must find more sustainable, efficient ways to improve their crop yields.
Fortunately, technology’s transformative powers offer some answers. For millennia, farmers have been some of civilization’s greatest data harvesters, collecting and passing down information on weather patterns, water levels, and climate shifts. The next generation of farm implements can help them gather huge amounts of information and use these data streams to their advantage. According to a study produced for the CTIA Wireless Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports wireless communication, technology is improving farmers’ decision-making power, which results in greater profit and water conservation and improved water quality, among other benefits. The study cites agriculture as one of the most fertile areas for connected devices.
So, how will the farms of tomorrow be different? New tools that lessen the burden on growers trying to collect ever more information—and synthesize it once they do—are among the biggest advancements in agricultural tech. These include big data, smart tech, and digital applications.
“There’s a digital revolution happening on the farm,” says Bob Reiter, head of research and development for the Crop Science Division of Bayer, which recently acquired Creve Coeur, Missouri–based Monsanto, a leading agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation. ” We see this immense opportunity to help growers make decisions that are ver y data-driven on the farm. It’ll help them be more productive. It’ll help them reduce the amounts of input that they use on the farm, and we’ll have bigger harvests if we do it in the right way.”
Since agriculture began, farmers have contended with countless variables and unknowns when planning their season. What is the right seed to plant? When should it be planted? How should it be fertilized? To get the best answers, farmers have carefully collected data throughout history, and now are able to capture more data than ever before through specialized machinery and even drones. Bayer’s mission is to provide the tools to synthesize and make sense of this overwhelming amount of information.
“We’re positioning ourselves to be a place where data can be brought together, and then by developing the right machine learning algorithms and models, we can help the grower make the best choices in the field,” says Reiter.
Some of this machine learning will take the form of smart tech—instruments able to process conditions and react to that input all on their own. Just as a smart thermostat can keep a home at the right temperature despite changing weather conditions, or a smart security camera can be activated by motion, smart farm implements can adapt to various conditions, prioritizing speed or accuracy or increasing water input based on detected dryness in an area.
Chris Rhodes, AGCO’s director of business development for Fuse®, the Duluth, Georgia–based agricultural company’s technology group, agrees that some of the most dramatic developments in agriculture are happening in the data-collection realm.
“The farmer, from time immemorial, has had to take into account almost an immeasurable number of variables,” Rhodes says. This has evolved from mental calculations to online spreadsheets, “but in all cases they’re having to make, and act on, important efficiency decisions based on all these variables them-selves.”
To ease the decision-making process, AGCO debuted the IDEAL Combine this year, which marries the traditional elements of a high-end combine harvester—a machine that can harvest many different crops efficiently—with smart tech that automatically acts on farmers’ criteria to account for weather, water, speed, and other variables when heading out to the fields, freeing them to focus on other value-adding activities. AGCO is also excited about Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer, a sensor that is pulled through the ground and measures inputs such as temperature, moisture, and organic material to automatically optimize planting activities.
There’s all this data available,” continues Rhodes, “and that ‘s adding to the amount of things that farmers have to think about, but it’s also creating tremendous opportunities, so we’re trying to help ease their path to growing more.”
Fifty years ago, agricultural scientists and growers warned of a looming food crisis as population rates soared. Today, those in the agricultural sector are trying to feed an exponentially growing number of people with a static amount of land, a changing climate, and dwindling natural resources. From targeted water sensors to adaptive combines, the wired farms of tomorrow, powered by big data and smart tech, are providing some of the best hope yet to address this critical need.