Farm Progress

Generative AI, a type of artificial intelligence that can create new concepts and learn on its own, stands to fundamentally change farming.

Andy Castillo

March 23, 2024

3 Min Read
Vineet Durana of Tavant speaks on a panel at the 2024 Ag-Tech Innovation Summit
TALKING TECH: Vineet Durana (right) of Tavant predicts that AI will become more embedded in farm machines over the next five years. He was speaking on a panel at the 2024 Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco.Andy Castillo

Halfway through the 11th hour of planting this year’s soybean crop, farmers probably won’t be thinking about artificial intelligence. That could change in coming years as the industry evolves toward complete autonomy, according to panelists speaking about generative AI at this year’s World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco.

“It’s an incredible time to be in technology and to bring [artificial intelligence] to agriculture,” says Feroz Sheikh, chief information and digital officer at Syngenta Group, a Chinese ag tech company. “We’re getting to the point that a computer can understand human intent.”

The innovation summit annually features dozens of panel discussions covering many different high-level ag tech topics, such as carbon capture and the best ways to harness real-time data. The conference attracts thousands of industry leaders from both large and startup brands.

Generative AI, a type of artificial intelligence that can create new concepts and learn on its own, stands to fundamentally change farming. Elliot Grant, CEO of Mineral, which is Google’s ag tech brand, says its growth and corresponding impact on farm machinery over the next five years can’t be understated.

“There’s an opportunity for a paradigm shift in agriculture, enabled by generative AI,” he says, describing a future where machines are “continuously retraining” and even experimenting with different farming techniques.

Generative AI unlocks “this idea of continuous management. We’ll have farm equipment that’s in the field continuously, always learning,” he says. “What if [a robot] could plant in a certain way, experimentally,” and then collect data a few months later and autonomously improve planting practices the next season?

Unlocking automation

In about the next five years, panelists predict that AI will bring about true automation in farm machinery. In the face of climate change, an expanding global population and many other stressors, there are clear benefits, according to Maya Sripadam, a senior product manager at Blue River Technology, which is owned by John Deere.

“We’re basically expecting our current farmers to feed 50% more of the world with the same workforce,” Sripadam says, noting that many growers are expected to retire in coming years, taking decades of knowledge with them. “We need to empower [future farmers] with technology that allows more distributed decision-making.”

Generative AI can close this skills gap by letting less-experienced farmers take over seamlessly from their older counterparts, according to Elizabeth Fastiggi, worldwide business development lead at Amazon Web Services. “There’s a big difference between where we are today and where the industry is going. That’s a really important area for us to think about.”

Need for data

If farmers haven’t already embraced generative AI in their operations, Vineet Durana of Tavant predicts they will soon as it becomes more embedded in modern machines. Historically, farm equipment has been designed primarily to execute farm tasks — either manually or autonomously.

“It wasn’t built for decision-making. That’s just come about in the last five years,” he says. “You’ve seen [adoption] in other industries. But we’re just on the cusp of that in agriculture.”

To that end, panelists agreed that ag tech companies should redefine competition. No single brand or organization can gather enough data on its own. Data must be shared because getting machine autonomy wrong is dire. If a machine doesn’t work as intended, crops won’t grow.

“Data is the fuel that makes this engine work,” says Randy Barker, CEO of Intent, an ag tech software and services company. “There’s no AI without data, and there are some challenges we need to overcome.”

When it’s fully realized, Sripadam says farmers won’t have to drive machines at the 11th hour. AI stands to take them out of the field and put them in a more fulfilling place.

“Five years and beyond, a farmer’s life will get better,” she says. “They’ll be able to go to their kids’ games, eat a hot meal and have a better work-life balance, because autonomous machines will make a difference.”

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About the Author(s)

Andy Castillo

Andy Castillo started his career in journalism about a decade ago as a television news cameraperson and producer before transitioning to a regional newspaper covering western Massachusetts, where he wrote about local farming.

Between military deployments with the Air Force and the news, he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University, building on the English degree he earned from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He's a multifaceted journalist with a diverse skill set, having previously worked as an EMT and firefighter, a nightclub photographer, caricaturist, features editor at the Greenfield Recorder and a writer for GoNomad Travel. 

Castillo splits his time between the open road and western Massachusetts with his wife, Brianna, a travel nurse who specializes in pediatric oncology, and their rescue pup, Rio. When not attending farm shows, Castillo enjoys playing music, snowboarding, writing, cooking and restoring their 1920 craftsman bungalow.

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