Several notable drivers poised to impact the future of agriculture are taking shape, and American farmers are already feeling the heat. Their future success depends on their ability to meet demands for increased sustainability while facing a severe labor shortage, rising input prices and increasingly unpredictable weather events. Producing more with less will be a key goal in the new era of agriculture.
Sustainability concerns among consumers continues to drive change. In a 2021 survey of 750 U.S consumers by C.O.nxt and Menu Matters, 80% of consumers reported that sustainability is important to some degree when deciding what foods and beverages to purchase from a supermarket or order from a restaurant. Food companies and retailers have taken notice, with companies such as Unilever, PepsiCo, General Mills, Walmart and Whole Foods leading efforts to reduce their global footprint.
“The challenges facing our customers are growing in complexity and society is asking more and more of them. The days of abundant resources in farming inputs are over. Labor, fertilizer and crop protection are all growing in scarcity and increasing in cost.”
said Garrett Goins, manager PS&C for crop care products at John Deere and chair of AEM’s Sprayer Technology Leadership Group.
Farmers are turning to technology to reach their goals.
“We’ve evolved from precision agriculture to digital agriculture.”
said Scott Shearer, PhD, PE, professor and Chair of Food Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University.
Precision agriculture describes farming tools that are based on observing, measuring and responding to within-field variability.
“Digital agriculture is broader. It covers everything from when the seed goes in the ground until there are end products on the consumer’s table. Everything is connected to the internet.”
Digital agriculture applies artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), to interpret huge amounts of data to support a farmer’s decision-making and improve the efficiency of farm operations.
Farmers Will Welcome Autonomous Technology
The lack of skilled labor for operating equipment is challenging farmers, but fully autonomous solutions provide reason for optimism.
“COVID exacerbated the labor shortages in rural America. Compaction from large machines is increasing runoff from agriculture and compromising soil health.”
In addition to improved productivity from being able to operate 24/7 during critical times of the year, Shearer believes autonomy will eventually enable smaller machines that will reduce soil compaction.
“Truly autonomous farming will be possible in the very near future. Our products already automate many difficult processes for operators, and that’s the first step toward full autonomy. You first have to make sure the entire job gets done right. It’s making sure that every pass, whether it’s tilling, planting, seeding and harvest, can be done to perfection with full autonomy..”
said Seth Crawford, AGCO’s SVP and GM of Precision Ag and Digital.
According to Crawford, autonomy involves far more than just automating the tractor, but also the various steps in farming.
Earlier this year, John Deere revealed a fully autonomous tractor that’s ready for large-scale production and just recently announced it will produce the machinery/technology pieces of a complete, full-season-capable autonomous cropping package by 2030.
Precision Agriculture Will Advance to Plant-Based Decision-Making
While some precision agriculture tools such as guidance systems and connectivity are near full adoption (90%), others have room to grow. AEM recently quantified the environmental benefits of precision agriculture in a study and found that precision agriculture has improved fertilizer placement efficiency by 7%, and has the potential to improve an additional 14%. According to Crawford, variable rate technology and section control technology are currently used by about 50% of farmers, but adoption is still growing. Variable-rate technology allows fertilizer, chemicals and other farm inputs to be applied at different rates across a field, without manually changing rate settings on equipment or having to make multiple passes over an area.
Section control technology improves efficiency by automatically turning off planter sections or individual rows in areas that have been previously planted, or areas designated as no-plant zones such as waterways. This prevents overlap and eliminates wasted seed and other inputs in odd-shaped fields.
“The biggest challenge is building the technology into the machine and making it reliable and easy to use. We have proven the payback is one to two years in most cases, now it’s a matter of making it easy to use.”
To increase adoption, AGCO is focusing on strong test programs and identifying areas where farmers struggle with set-up.
Shearer said he has observed that farmers in Ohio are doing a much better job of soil sampling and applying nitrogen at key times in the growing process to do more with less. The Y-drop system and high clearance sprayers are new tools that extend the nitrogen application window. It’s the combination of these technologies that delivers a nitrogen solution directly to the soil surface at the base of the corn plant for optimum plant uptake and nitrogen use efficiency.
The AEM study found that precision agriculture reduced herbicide placement efficiency by 9%, but that did not include new vision technology and artificial intelligence (AI) which takes precision agriculture to the plant level. Targeted spraying technologies from John Deere and AGCO detect weeds among corn, soybean and other crops, and they spray herbicide on only the weeds. John Deere reports a 77% reduction in herbicide among users. With supply chain issues causing shortages in herbicide and increases in cost of 30% in just the past year, targeted spraying technology represents significant savings for farmers.
“Farmer adoption of technology is often tied to their profitability.”
The key will be applying AI and analysis to data to improve shared insights between growers across the agriculture ecosystem.
A recent study published by Purdue University revealed the data farmers are currently collecting:
- 82% collect yield monitor data
- 77% collect soil data
- 47% collect satellite or drone imagery data
- 73% create GPS maps from their data
More Farmers Will Answer The Call Related to Sustainability
With a focus on improving soil health through natural methods rather than chemicals, sustainable agriculture is an old idea that has been gaining traction among sustainability advocates and farmers. In 2019, General Mills committed to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. In February, the USDA announced that it will invest $1 billion to support America’s climate smart farmers, ranchers and forest landowners.
Mitchell Hora, founder and CEO of Continuum Ag, is on a mission to advance regenerative agriculture, promoting techniques such as no-till farming, the use of cover crops and grazing livestock on crop land. He works with farmers in 38 states and 16 different countries.
Regenerative agriculture at scale is in its infancy. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, just 12% of farm acres were no-till, 11% were reduced tillage, and just 2% of farm acres utilized cover crops.
Hora’s approach relies on Haney soil tests that measure both organic and inorganic nutrients, software to analyze soil data, experimentation and insights to help farmers profit from the start. Hora’s 700-acre family farm in Iowa, has been no-till since 1978 and utilized cover crops since 2013. As soon as possible after harvest, Hora plants a cover crop and continues to let it grow in the spring.
“In the spring we will plant green and then terminate the cover crop later based on soil moisture data.”
Careful management of the carbon nitrogen ratios and understanding the organic nutrients in the soil is necessary.
Since planting cover crops, the Hora’s have maintained above average yields on corn and soybeans while using 33% less nitrogen, 100% less potassium, and 75% less phosphorous, and a 100% less lime. The amount of organic matter in the soil increased by 1.43% from 2010-2020.
More organic matter in the soil also means greater resiliency to floods and drought. Soil with more organic matter holds more water during an extreme rainfall, reducing runoff. It also can support plants better during droughts.
“The average farm in the U.S. can only infiltrate a half-inch of water per hour. On our farm, we can infiltrate four inches of rainfall in five minutes.”
Hora also hasn’t had to replant crops and no longer purchases federal crop insurance. All of this improves the bottom line of the farm.
“If you enable the biology to do the work for you, you don’t have to spend money on inputs.”
“The savings of precision ag are real. It’s a little bit here and a little bit there, but the savings add up.”
Carbon credits are another reason why sustainable agriculture practices may flourish. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that regenerative agriculture can sequester 250 million tons of carbon dioxide in the U.S. annually, or around 4 % of our emissions. Farmers could be paid for carbon credits to offset the emissions of corporations.
Hora and Shearer said they believe the industry needs a tool to more accurately measure a farmer’s carbon footprint.
“To reward innovation, we need to show the farmer the actual carbon impact of their operations.”
Modern Farming Requires New Skills
To produce more with less, agriculture has become a high-tech industry and that means farmers will require new skills or will need to hire experts in the fields of GIS mapping, advanced soil testing, prescription maps, data analytics and computer networking.
“Our role is to work with farmers to understand the issues we’re all trying to solve together –How can we increase yields with less inputs, and improve their outlook. Farmers trust their local dealers and input suppliers for a lot of advice and we work with them to ensure that’s part of the overall customer experience.”
Lastly, there is a role for universities as well.
“We continue to educate the private sector. We’re neutral, unbiased assessors. We want to make certain products and services align well with the science.”