By Mark R. Smith, Contributing Writer
Among the most common themes heard in agricultural circles today concern robotics and sustainability. Or perhaps a combination of those two disciplines, among other industry bullet points. Charlie Walker explained the relationship.
“One of the biggest trends in agriculture is promoting sustainability goals, and those goals are trickling downstream from corporations and rushing to suppliers,” said Walker, site selection lead for Ady Advantage, of Madison, Wisc. “To that point, many contracts have carbon reduction strategies built in to reduce carbon footprints to satisfy their customers.”
Then comes the tech side of the observation: “We’re seeing geotechnology, and even block chain technology, used as a way to reach that end and keep that input covered,” he said, “and it’s being pushed by the large corporations that want to accomplish their environmental goals.”
Noted feasibility studies Ady Advantage of late reveal information on “how to accomplish those goals and how much capital needs to be invested to reach them,” Walker said. “With technology costs going down each year, the movement is taking a foothold. Our customers want to see how much capital they will need to reduce and document the size of their carbon footprint.”
But there are legal challenges with that approach. “And there are not mechanisms to cover this move, so it’s being written into legal documents,” said Walker. “The mechanisms are about emergence, carbon reduction and sustainably with food safety (organic, pure, no pesticides, etc.) and documents, with block chain technology.”
So in other words, “If the grower says it’s organic,” he said, “we want to ensure that it’s pure.”
That means that there is great detail to this effort. “Know, for instance, that a harvested cornfield cannot be kept fallow,” said Walker. “It has to be covered with grass to prevent carbon from seeping in. Such innovations will have to be documented in the future as sustainability with food technology becomes the trend.
In the site selection world, he and his colleagues are observing that companies that embrace block chain technologies are getting ahead. “But know that given the lack of broadband connections in many of rural areas, it’s a challenge,” Walker said, “though they also are seeing that future technologies will rely on that connection.”
“We’re seeing that it’s critical for the big Internet service providers to work within rural communities,” he said. “Geofencing and satellite technology are becoming more a part of the agriculture game as it develops in real time for that reason. For instance, my customer will know that while I’m tilling the field, that action will be documented to help my customer make decisions.”
But as is the case in many other industries, the lack of available workforce rears its ugly head. On that topic, Walker offered a macro view.
“We need to see how communities are addressing this issue and establishing a long-term pipeline, so we’re talking 10-15 years as our sweet spot,” he said. “We’re paying more attention to the labor sheds, as it’s the number one driver in site selection.”
Jim MacDonald, a research professor at the University of Maryland College Park’s College of Agriculture, is a former agricultural economist with the USDA. He’s in tune with Walker’s observations about the burgeoning role of technology in the agriculture industry.
“In my later years at the USDA we tracked robots, which in that case were unmanned vehicles that are starting to come on the commercial market,” said McDonald. “Since you don’t need a human on board as you would with a tractor, they can be much smaller.”
The use of these robots may spread rapidly, “especially for fruit and vegetable farming, because they replace high-cost labor in that sector,” he said, “plus, they can pick some crops which were previously only harvested by hand. Replacing labor is key in this part of the industry, as most workers have been immigrants from Central America. As wages have been rising in recent years, farmers are looking for alternatives.”
Another trend concerns the application of precision agriculture—essentially the application of information technology to agriculture—to what is known as variable rate application (VRA) of pesticides and crop nutrients.
“John Deere bought a product about five years ago from Blue River Technology called See & Spray, which takes pictures of the plants and, with machine learning, decides in real time if it’s a crop or a weed,” MacDonald said. Pesticides are then applied only to the weed, instead of being sprayed across the field. The motto is, ‘Spray the plant, not the field.’ The weeds also can be removed mechanically, obviating the need for pesticides. This technology has applications in agriculture. It’s not being used commercially yet, but appears to be close.
He called See & Spray “an extreme example” of the VRA technology that has been used during the last two decades, which is traditionally used on a combine or in a field to plot areas of nutrient needs or pest pressure in fields. That information is transformed into digital field maps, which are used in combination with GPS technology, to identify where a sprayer is in a field and to drive variations in nutrient or pesticide application rates across fields.
“Traditional VRA has been available and in use for 25 years, but has not appeared to offer big financial returns to the farmers,” said McDonald, “but newer technologies like See & Spray could make the next leap forward.”
“What this is about,” he said, “is the more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides for farmers. It fits into what we’re seeing in the western U.S., where smart water use is more important due to the lack thereof.”
Another trend, MacDonald said, is the rise of indoor agriculture. “Many vegetables are already produced in one-story greenhouses, notably fresh market tomatoes and cucumbers. More recently, there’s been significant investment on vertical agriculture, which is done not in greenhouses, but in three-to-four story buildings, which are often repurposed manufacturing plants,” near large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J.
“The firms typically produce greens, but are expanding into other vegetables,” McDonald said, “and they typically initially sell to restaurants, but we could see that market also move into supermarkets.”
But one of the downsides, he said, is that these setups use a great deal of energy, to power the LED lights used to grow the crops.
“However, if we see a continued move toward more economical energy use through continued improvements in LED technology, this trend could blossom,” said McDonald. “A good deal of venture capital money has been injected it. But to produce enough product to add the retail market, the growers have to first scale up and reduce energy costs. Energy prices have gone down in some markets due to LED technology, so that could spur this movement.”
Trey Malone, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, honed in on a big shift in the ag market: for more offices and facilities to be based stateside.
“We’re also seeing an anti-globalization push,” said Malone, citing international trade agreements “that have been popular for the past several decades that are starting to recess. Russia, India and much of Asia are increasing export restrictions. That’s what we’re most afraid of as economists, because what we typically find is that an increase in trade leads to an increase in global wealth. Declining international trade is a scary concept.”
Malone’s views were more optimistic concerning economic development and investment perspectives. “Regional and local food systems look like they’ll do very well in the next couple of decades,” he said, pointing to growth in the craft beverage market and farmer’s markets, as well as consumers picking their own fruits and vegetables.
If that sounds like thinking globally and acting locally, that thought is in the right direction. “We’re also seeing the redevelopment of regional food systems.” said Malone, “For example, the federal government is increasing funding for regional meat processing capacity. This could be a big deal.”
So while there are issues to address, even they can present not-so-obvious opportunities.
“The decline in international trade is a bad thing, but it creates new investment wrinkles, such as increased domestic production of fertilizers,” Malone said. “Agricultural input market access has led to larger issues while we move through the supply chain crisis of recent years, but again there are federal and private investments in production facilities in the U.S.”
“Boosting the domestic product market is the key,” he said. “It’s hoped this will help with some of the supply chain issues and thus lessen consumer costs.”
Malone echoed Walker’s concerns about workforce. “Another issue is the aging of farmers and the lack of new blood not only entering the business, but the lack of population growth in rural areas that need to boost workforce.”
“The saying has been that, ‘If you take care of agriculture, you’re taking care of small towns,’” said Malone, “but if you don’t take care of the small town, will agriculture be fine? That’s an open-ended question. But immigration might be the answer. Agriculture and immigration have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of the industry in the U.S., and immigration and automation are very much related.”
As are agriculture and that permanent wild card, the weather, especially with climate change. “Weather patterns are wild. Check the drought map,” he said. “Horrible freezes that used to be one once-a-century events are now twice-a-decade events.”
Any successful agricultural program needs a hungry public that sometimes prefer its bounty raw, other times processed. “The food processing industry is very active and we’re seeing expansion of its U.S. manufacturing footprints around the country,” said Michelle Comerford, project director with Biggins Lacey Shapiro & Co., of New York, also commenting on the heightening of regional production efforts.
“[Companies] are employing more regional production strategies versus global, as would have been the case for some companies pre-pandemic,” Comerford said, also noting smoother distribution channels.
“Advanced technologies are helping processors expand in a more cost-efficient manner, such as employing GPS data systems with sensors in tractors to better yield crops. The industry is becoming more automated, from farming to packaging and distribution, and therefore more efficient,” she said. “Also, there is increased consumer demand, as more people are opting for healthier and less expensive home meals. I don’t see this increase in demand letting up for at least a couple of years.”
The trickle down to agriculture is key, said Comerford, “since many ingredients are sourced from U.S. farmers. So we’re seeing some production facilities wanting to locate closer to bulk commodity producers of soy, corn, grain,” etc.
For the Public
Another piece of the agriculture puzzle is the public’s interest in where products originate and the various ways they find, eat and/or use it.
“Across the industry, we’re not only seeing agriculture tourism people come to visit farms, but farmers markets are huge, too,” said Betsy Rowell, director of the Stone County Economic Development Partnership in Wiggins, Miss. “We have a few thousand acres of farms here and people visit them” from around the Deep South.
It’s all part of “agritourism,” and the region where Rowell works is known as “The Wood Basket.”
For instance, “Those visitors are interested in the timber industry, so they want to know about the resources and the formulas for taking stock of renewable resources,” she said. “A company that manufactures wood pellets for instance, would come to The Wood Basket to find resources.”
The Deep South is a hot bed for tree farmers and those who develop their own technologies. “For example, we have companies that cut timber for telephone poles. That had been done with simple measuring tape, but there is now digital instrument for that task and many others that are related to agriculture,” she said.
“So forest products as a component of the agriculture economy generate value in our region,” said Rowell, “in various ways.”