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Ag's future: pepper lasers, crops that tell their needs

Lowell Catlett sees things other people don't. Although his official title is the more prosaic professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, he's perhaps better known as a “futurist.” He observes trends and lifestyles and technologies and “sees” how they will all mesh at some point in the future to result in different trends and lifestyles and technologies.

A lot of the stuff futurists predict don't come to pass at all or take a lot longer than predicted. But a lot of it does come to pass, and Catlett's “hits” have been pretty impressive.

He rolled out his latest insights at a recent meeting. The technologies exist already; their adaptation is just a matter of time, Catlett says.

  • “Pepper” lasers no larger than a grain of pepper; you can hold thousands in the palm of your hand.

    So what does that have to do with agriculture? “Apply them to wheat or corn or vegetables and you now have a way to monitor those plants — every minute of every day throughout their growth cycle.”

  • Bluetooth, a high frequency radiowave technology now being used by thousands of companies for wireless networks. A similar technology, 802.11, is used by United Parcel Service to track all its packages.

“Bluetooth creates wireless networks that allow all kinds of electronic devices to communicate with each other,” Catlett says. “Shopping centers are installing them in light poles around their parking lots, so when you drive onto their lot, XYZ store may communicate with your cellphone and tell you it has a special sale on the particular brand of socks you prefer.”

In agriculture, Catlett says, “Put Bluetooth devices around the perimeter of a farm field that has been sprayed with pepper lasers, and every plant in can tell your computer what it needs in the way of water, nutrients, etc., every minute of every day.”

Technologies such as these “have been made 10 times more relevant” as a result of the terrorism of Sept. 11, he says, and can mean more money to the farmer.

“When we can use these methods to assure consumers that their agriculture and their food are certified pure all the way back to the source, they will pay for it. Every plant and animal product that can be monitored to its source, and certified, will be gold to the consumer.

“A public that spent $10 million last year on voice-activated cellphones for dogs, so their vets could constantly monitor their vital signs, will pay to know that their food is safe all the way back to the field in which it was grown.”

Consumers will also pay for greater convenience, for branding, and for reputation, Catlett says.

“I used to spend all night barbecuing brisket, and it was pretty good beef. Then one day at Sam's Club I discovered brisket already marinated and cooked. I don't cook brisket any more — Sam's Club does it for me and my friends don't know the difference.

“We've got to make our food and fiber system more convenient, and consumers will pay us for it.”

Agriculture today “isn't just about a commodity anymore,” Catlett says. “It's about everything you can wrap around that commodity.”

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