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Big Think

Four of the most influential thinkers in the ag world today.

Big Think: The future of robotics on farms
The Future of Farming, Part I
The Future of Farming, Part II

Pictured: Tony Grift, University of Illinois, talks about robots on farms.

Mike Boehlje
Professor of agricultural economics
Purdue University

When Mike Boehlje speaks, people listen. The distinguished professor in agricultural economics at Purdue University has spent his career watching and analyzing agriculture. Today, Boehlje focuses his attention on helping growers and producers position their businesses and themselves for long-term success.

FIN: Will the ownership of farmland change?

Boehlje: I don't see lot of incentive for those on either side of the producer to heavily invest in farmland as a way to control production. Companies may want to get vertically linked into production, but they don't want to make the capital investment because land generates a modest cash rate of return in earnings and the rest in capital gains and appreciation. Publically traded companies don't want appreciation, they want earnings. So they're not that excited to buy farmland. But they may want something to say about how crops are produced on that farmland.

Won't that take away a farmer's independence?

Production input is pretty standard practice in the business world. You don't just decide to manufacture bumpers for Toyota and do it the way you want to do it. Toyota tells you how to manufacture the bumpers.

What will the team of farmers look like in the future?

It will be a very family-based agricultural business. But the characteristics of the family will change. It will move to extended family members. Publically traded businesses still aren't interested in crop production. However, they are interested in livestock production.

It's fair to say that the successful farmer of the future will have to have CEO skills because they will have a workforce. They will be hiring individuals and not hired hands so they will have to deal with employee incentives and all the other decisions about personnel management that the local car dealer has been facing all these years.

Farmers will have to adopt business management concepts and principles. They will not be just peddling a product, but merchandising their product. So they will have to make better marketing decisions.

How should growers prepare for the future?

Within the next year, the real issue is to maintain your operation to have the strongest probability of survivability. I'm actually very, very excited about the long-term future of agriculture. But I think we're going to go through tough times that you almost always see in a commodity industry after a period of very good incomes. It is almost inevitable. We will come off that peak and will come down to a time of tighter or negative margins. It will be financially stressful, but I don't think we will return to the same kind of stress level that we had in the 1980s.

There are times when we say that cash is king and this is one of those times. Longer term, make sure to position yourself to take advantage of opportunities on the other side of this economy.

I think the land market is pretty close to the top of the market now and that it will go down in price. But I don't think we will see the same decline in assets that we saw in the 1980s. So growers should position themselves for the opportunities in the next two to three years after the land price adjustment occurs. We have a strong, long-term, growing demand for agricultural products.

Tony E. Grift
Associate professor
University of Illinois

The skills Tony Grift learned from vocational school in the Netherlands have served him well as an associate professor at the University of Illinois. From his lab in the cavernous Agricultural Engineering Sciences building, Grift spends lots of time handling tools and electronics to help his students understand the intricacies of automation in corn and soybean production. Grift's vision of future agriculture includes robotics. It is quite amazing.

FIN: What is the best use of robotics in crop production?

Grift: I think it would be good for us is to build mechanical weeders, especially with weed resistance problems from spraying. But the problem with mechanical weeding is you have to have good speed. We could develop a module and put 20 robots on a tractor and go through the field. But it must compete with a sprayer that takes only 30 seconds to do an acre.

This is the problem with all robots. No robot can match a human being. Only one robot has been commercialized in agriculture, and this is the milking robot. Other than that, all robots are concepts.

What would automation look like in corn production?

I'm not saying we will use robots for everything. We won't have robots doing harvesting anytime soon. Harvesters need capacity. But if we look at scouting, which is how we started with this robot thing, we can make a robot to scout in the field and collect data. It would be ideal to have a whole flock of robots, like 20 or 30 of them, and let them roam around. So you'll drive by a field and see a robot roaming through the field, looking for water, nitrogen stress, weeds, etc.

As they go through the field, they communicate with each other. We've demonstrated this in the lab. You can make robots that talk to each other with all off-the shelf technology.

How would the robot work?

A robot can go on the Internet and check a weather map to see if it is a good day to weed or treat for insects. The robots will do this as a team. They will be able to get information from the Internet and from each other. Maybe robot No. 8 took a picture of a weed, downloaded it to a Web site and decided it was waterhemp. Then it checks with other robots to see how much waterhemp is in the field. If they decide something should be done, then the robots will find other robots that may be recharging batteries and send them out in the field to tackle this problem as a group.

Will robots really work together?

This sounds all crazy. But in reality, you could let an ecosystem do its own thing. They [robots] could learn. They won't be great in the beginning, but over time, it will be like teaching children. You emphasize group behavior and you punish bad behavior. Over time, the robots will learn how to do things better and better.

The next step is genetic programming, which is when you make offspring. You take one robot and another and say they are doing really well and we want to make one more of you. You make the third one, but it is not exactly the same. If you put a little variation in it, then over time, some robots will have spontaneous variations. That variation will make one robot better than all the rest and all the other robots will follow this one. That's how you move from one level of sophistication to the next. This is all wow thinking and it won't be implemented in 5 to 10 years.

Why don't universities work with equipment manufacturers on research?

There is quite a missing link between what we do [at the university] and what companies do. Nobody has figured out how a company can work with a university to make it mutually beneficial. Companies have little time but they have money. They have to come up with a new idea that must be on the machine by the end of the year. And they are interested in a patent.

At the university, we have the opposite. Students take a lot of time, whether they need it or not, and budgets are miniscule. Everything we do, we want it to be public. So hopefully John Deere will lead the way with its new Technology and Innovation Center in our research park. Graduate students will work there.

Jeff Broin
Sioux Falls, SD

Jeff Broin, CEO of POET, Sioux Falls, SD, had his first exposure to ethanol when his father built a farm-scale plant and later purchased an ethanol plant out of bankruptcy in Scotland, SD. After graduating from University of Wisconsin-River Falls with an agribusiness degree, Jeff Broin became the plant manager. Broin now oversees an organization with 26 plants in seven states with a combined annual production capacity of 1.54 billion gallons of ethanol and 4 million tons of distillers' grain.

Broin works with three principles in mind: “We're all on the same team; we park our egos at the door; and we always over-communicate.”

FIN: Tell us about your experience at Broin Companies and then POET. [Broin Companies changed its name to POET in April 2007.]

Broin: At our first ethanol plant, I wore several hats — managing staff, buying grain, marketing ethanol and distillers' grain, technology improvements, expansions and more. Today we have separate divisions, including Design and Construction, Plant Management, and Risk Management and Nutrition. A team of executives handles the day-to-day management of the divisions. I spend more time setting direction for the company.

Why have you invested your time and resources in POET?

Ethanol is a clean-and-green, high-tech and homegrown solution to our world's energy problems. We're giving America the opportunity to free itself from the influence of countries that control the oil supply by providing a fuel source that will never be depleted.

Ethanol production is reinvigorating rural America by providing farmers with another market for their product. Over time, it could do the same thing for the world.

In what direction are you taking POET and why?

This fall, we opened three ethanol plants. We've also continued to invest in research and development. We will be producing cellulosic ethanol from corncobs in our pilot plant in Scotland, SD, this year, and we're scheduled to begin commercial production in Emmetsburg, IA, in 2011.

We also continue to improve technology to increase our plants' efficiency, minimizing water and energy use and finding alternative sources of power.

What will be the biggest opportunities for agriculture in the next decade and why?

The future of biofuels and agriculture are tied together. One cannot prosper without the other.

Cellulosic technology will play a key role in the future of ethanol. Our process uses corncobs as the feedstock for ethanol production. This presents a new revenue opportunity for farmers — one that comes without the need to change land use or planting practices.

POET's model doesn't require farmers to be responsible for transport or storage of cobs. Farmers simply pick up the cobs and drop them at the edge of the field. We take over from there.

What is your vision for corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol?

To become energy independent, corn- and cellulose-based ethanol must continue to grow in the next 20 years, and both can. With modern farming practices, we can double grain production on planted acres worldwide. This will not only create more grain-based and cellulosic ethanol, but will also help developing countries where much of the land resides.

The cellulosic ethanol industry will be built on the foundation of corn-based ethanol, and the two processes will work together. With the demands of the Renewable Fuel Standard, there will be plenty of opportunity. And with even better yields projected by seed companies, corn-based ethanol will be able to grow without the need for more cropland.

You have written that we must take this opportunity to start a new revolution — a renewable one.

The revolution has started. With more advances in technology, we could eliminate America's need to import oil for gasoline.

Shawn Conley
University of Wisconsin

Shawn Conley wants to improve the image of agronomy. With fewer students entering the field of agronomy, the soybean and wheat extension specialist for the University of Wisconsin says there's never been a better time to be an agronomist. He earned his Ph.D. in horticulture from the university in 2001 and took this position in 2007.

FIN: What's been good about being an agronomist today?

Conley: I think this is the second generation of the Green Revolution. We're seeing a faster pace toward yield increases, improvements in plant breeding and better management techniques. For our generation, this is probably the most exciting time to be in agriculture since the original Green Revolution.

Isn't biotech the future?

There is a severe lack of trained agronomists. The huge shift to biotechnology took a lot of students, and research dollars, away from agronomy and into biotech. But there still is a need for the person who can work with the producer to figure out what is happening out in the field and how to fix it. Just because something can be created in the lab doesn't mean it will work for the producer.

How is the role of the traditional agronomist changing?

Our future role will include work with plant pathologists, entomologists, nematologists, plant breeders, and related fields to work on the issues that impact producers. If we are going to move beyond the current yield plateau, we need to work together as a group to determine all issues that impact a plant's production.

How do you communicate with producers?

We continue to embrace new technologies to communicate with producers. I run a soybean blog at, which provides immediate updates for soybean producers on any issues that may impact them. I did a survey on my listserv, and those that responded represented more than 600,000 acres. Growers today want tools like these for immediate feedback. Years ago, an agronomist might be able to get you an answer in a week. That doesn't work today.

Will basic agronomic research still be important?

We will continue to conduct the basic agronomic research. But agronomists must move beyond the traditional roles and integrate new tools and techniques. For instance, last year's flooding left standing water on a lot of soybean acreage. One question that arose is if this standing water had any impact on the rhizobia levels in the field and if fields would need to be inoculated. We can use lab-based techniques and quantify the rhizobia population in the field to determine if these fields or areas need to be inoculated. We're working with researchers who are studying the basic genetic mechanisms within soybean.

Our ultimate job is to provide growers with unbiased, science-based recommendations that help improve their bottom line.

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