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4 technological advances that will change the way we farm

Oct. 23, 2017 at midnight

Ever since the first farmer decided to cultivate wild cereals in the desert some 12,000 years ago, advancements in agricultural technology have been the foundation for human society’s evolution and progress. While the food supply chain is an alien concept to many American consumers, farmers in industrialized commercial operations, small-scale cooperatives and enthusiasts in their backyard are always on the lookout for ways to get the most out of their patch of soil. Here are four advances in agricultural technology that could have major impact on the food supply chain.

1. Go robot

Automation in commercial agriculture is not a new phenomenon, but recent technological advancements could see even less human intervention in the food chain. For example, if self-driving cars are soon to hit the road, why not the field too? Highly-accurate GPS positioning could see grain carts that can automatically align with harvesters and offload the payload at the depot. A machine that can automatically detect and treat soiled patches of grass in cattle fields has already seen operation, as have robots used to pick lettuce and strawberries at the optimum ripeness. Automation of commercial farming will increase operational efficiency and reduce production costs, leading to a more stable and secure food supply chain.

2. Growing up

The increasing rate of human population growth is well-documented, and the encroachment of urban sprawl on agricultural land could become an urgent problem. Vertical farming could be the solution to this, by growing crops in glass-walled skyscrapers or high rises with artificial lighting. This approach relies heavily on artificial conditions and soilless growth media such as hydroponics, but yields can equal or surpass those of traditional farming methods as well as use less water and acreage. While the energy mix is still tilted in favor of fossil fuels, vertical farming is unlikely to be economically feasible — but when renewables begin forcing energy prices down, we could see arable skyscrapers growing up.

3. Here comes the sun

For the small-scale producer and backyard hobbyist, small cuts in production costs can represent a huge increase in their operation’s economic viability. Solar technology can provide off-grid power for basic equipment that would not be feasible on mains electricity. For the cooperative farmer with a small poultry stock, a standalone solar panel is an inexpensive way to power an electric livestock fence, meaning fewer losses to predators. An urban gardener could use the same system to automate the irrigation of a salad garden. The advancement of solar technology has driven its price down to a level where pay-back times for small-scale producers are now years, or months, instead of decades.

4. Eye in the sky

Drones have been used in agriculture since the early 1980s, but the reduced cost, increased functionality and relaxation of laws governing their use means they are an increasingly common sight in our skies. With an estimated market value in the agricultural industry of $32.4 billion, drones have already been utilized in many aspects of small-scale farming. Soil analysis using drones produces high-definition 3D images to optimize seed planting patterns, and crop monitoring no longer requires expensive helicopters or satellite imagery — simply send the drone up and take a look! Some operations are using drones for automated crop spraying — ensuring even coverage and reduced chemical usage — and crop health assessments by infrared scanning to detect fungal infections. As this technology becomes less expensive, the list of potential applications is virtually endless. We are indeed living in exciting times!


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