Editor's Note: What follows is a blog entry from Farm Progress as part of our participation in Ag Day festivities. Tom Bechman, editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer, shares his insight into the value of technology for feeding the world.
Just a few years ago the John Deere Company produced a short video following a farmer for one day during planting season. He woke up to his coffee already brewing. Today we can even set a programmable coffeemaker to just make a single cup of coffee. But most of us can’t do what the farmer did next - he walked to a large-screen television display, and it provided weather information and much more. He could start his tractor remotely, and even let it operate by itself.
It seemed a bit ‘out-there’ then, but not today. Deere and several other companies have autonomous equipment. The question is whether society is ready for tractors without drivers. There are cars which drive themselves, but that doesn’t mean everyone is hurrying out to buy one.
Meanwhile, data collection is booming in agriculture. As machines operate in the field, sensors linked to onboard computers collect all kinds of information. Technology is available which allows a farmer to monitor, from his cell phone, what’s happening on a machine an employee is operating. He instantly knows not only where the machine is but how well it’s operating.
And if the machine isn’t performing up to par, he can clue in his dealer, who alerts a technician to monitor data coming from the machine in real time. Often, the technician can diagnose a potential problem, even before it causes a breakdown. These technicians still know how to turn a wrench, but their most important asset is a computer, not a toolbox.
At the same time, companies like Microsoft are figuring out how to transmit crop information collected in the field back to the computer in the farmer’s office, using ‘white noise’ channels on TV frequencies which stations aren’t using. The Internet of things has come to agriculture!
Making sense of it all
What does all this mean to those inside and outside of agriculture? The goal is increased efficiency, which means more food produced on the same amount or less land at cheaper cost. That translates into a constant supply of safe, healthy food, not only for Americans, but for people around the world. Instead of one farmer feeding roughly 150 people today, someday that number will be much larger.
Meanwhile, technology allows consumers who want local food to decide just how local they want it to be. They can buy fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets in season. Some producers are using hydroponics to produce certain types of vegetables all-year long and supplying them to consumers through local arrangements.
What if you could grow your own food, right in your kitchen? It’s not far-out dreaming. Unlike many things that weren’t reality yet in the John Deere video of the future farm, growing your own food inside your kitchen is reality now.
Scott Massey, an entrepreneur who learned how to grow plants, primarily lettuce and other greens, in a small, controlled environment while working on NASA space projects, developed GroPod, available for order through his start-up company. It uses aeroponics in a small appliance and seed starter ‘pods’ to allow you to, in theory, have green, leafy vegetables for your table, fresh every day, all year long. Now that is local! It’s pricey today but check it out at gropod.io.
Where will technology take agriculture in the future? The sky may be the limit. Perhaps small robots will work like a swarm of bees to spray and tend crops. Perhaps fresh lettuce growing in your kitchen will become affordable.
One thing is certain. Agriculture will be ever-broadening, perhaps including even you. And it will continue to provide safe, affordable, healthy food for America and beyond.