Of all the industries careening toward disruption, agriculture appears to be the one sector of the economy most primed for dramatic change.
Given the threat posed by climate change, soaring populations, and ever-changing diets, the industry will be confronted with uncovering solutions to challenges mostly dictated by outside forces.
Of course, there are limits to our ability to prognosticate. It’s true, the majority of scientists agree the climate is changing. However, wildly unpredictable weather events in the form of floods, drought and other extreme occurrences can endanger crops, creating a troubling domino effect.
Beside the existential threat of a warming planet, investors are also seeking fertile ground in an enormous industry that has yet to completely embrace innovation.
Agriculture is largely caught in a curious position: preparing for both expected and unforeseeable events. Still, farmers and industry groups are analyzing ways to increase their output and productivity while maintaining lean operations. And to do that, many are trying to understand how best to leverage emerging technologies to stave off disruption, including autonomous machines, Artificial Intelligence (AI), vertical farming, big data and much more.
Beside the existential threat of a warming planet, investors are also seeking fertile ground in an enormous industry that has yet to completely embrace innovation. Investors are funneling millions into agriculture startups, according to the Financial Times, which noted that one such firm, Farmers Business Network, raised $110 million in 2017 alone.
So here’s a look at some of the technologies—robots and all—that farmers may soon utilize as one of the world’s oldest professions pivots toward sustainability.
For some farmers, enlisting the help of a robot may be less about being innovators and more to do with assembling an actual workforce, albeit one unaffected by human limitations. Farming is notoriously grueling work, and it’s no secret that attracting laborers is difficult. Labor shortages, in countries like the United States where lingering questions about the future of immigration dominate the news cycle, also have complicated matters. According to the Smart Farm Initiative at the University of California, Davis, 55-percent of farmers and ranchers report employee shortages.
While the technology is largely still being tested, automation can perform such demanding functions as picking weeds—eliminating the need for pesticides—collecting delicate fruits and harvesting apples.
And there’s even a name for this high-tech side of agriculture: agri-tech.
What else can robot farmers do? Well, the question we should be asking is what can’t they do?
Autonomous farmers may also be able to learn on the job.
And to show how invested the industry is in new technologies, consider John Deere’s $305 million acquisition of Silicon Valley-based agri-tech company Blue River Technology. The startup boasts machines that utilize AI to identify weeds and spray accordingly, eliminating excessive use of herbicides.
"Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level," Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology, said when the deal was announced. "We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field."
John Deere is no stranger to mobilizing new technology. For nearly two decades, the company has been a leader in using GPS technology. But having the capability to deploy technology that analyzes individual plants can be a potential game-changer.
Other than its “see and spray” technology, Blue River also makes a “lettuce bot” equipped with the ability to take images and spray individual plants.
Nearly every industry in the world is relying on data to understand consumer behaviors, increase efficiency and streamline operations, agriculture included.
Incorporating analytics into farming can improve the growing experience in a variety of ways. From tracking and analyzing weather patterns in preparing for the next growing season and gathering information on crops, farmers will be able to harness this information to improve efficiency. After all, as we mentioned previously, the demand for food is going to grow exponentially by 2050, and farmers will likely have to rapidly begin transitioning to 21st century farms.
One such company elevating data usage among farmers is the aforementioned Farmers Business Network. The company claims to provide “unbiased analytics” to aid by providing information on a host of important data points on seeds, soils and more. Farmers can use this to identify top-performing products and avoid issues that may arise from problematic seeds.
“As each new farmer joins the FBN Network, every member’s seed information, agronomic analytics, and buying power gets stronger,” the company says on its website. “When farmers connect, farmers win—and the services, technology, and network keep growing.”
Vertical farming has emerged as an intriguing way for growers to ramp up productions in preparation for the expected population boom. This form of growing occurs indoors and in a controlled environment so growers can dictate everything from temperature, water, lighting, and potentially carbon dioxide.
With 68 percent of the population expected to call urban areas home by 2050, vertical farming could play a crucial role in boosting production and providing city dwellers with fresh produce grown only miles away as compared to far off rural areas.
“Producing fresh greens and vegetables close to these growing urban populations could help meet growing global food demands in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way by reducing distribution chains to offer lower emissions, providing higher-nutrient produce, and drastically reducing water usage and runoff,” according to an article on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website.
The vertical farming market is estimated to reach nearly $10 billion by 2025, according to a report from Grand View Research, Inc.
The vertical farming firm AeroFarms made a splash weeks ago when it announced $100 million in new funding. But the New Jersey-based company isn’t alone in raising large sums. According to reports, the vertical farming company Plenty raised $200 million in 2017, which was considered the largest such agri-tech investment at the time.
AeroFarms, which Fast Company named one of the most innovative companies in 2019, said the the agri-tech startup grew more than 100 million plants in the first half of 2018.
“Using innovations in data science and plant biology such as computer vision and machine learning, AeroFarms has increased its number of crop cycles annually by 14%, which is 769% greater than field farming,” Fast Company wrote.
While agriculture may have been late to the party, innovation is indeed taking hold. And despite concerns over climate change, food production and labor shortages, an effort is underway to reimagine farming in the 21st century.
If you’re looking for an innovation consultant to get your company where it needs to go, Pivot Factory is an advisory services firm that focuses on the trends of disruption, and how companies can react through innovation. Contact Pivot Factory today.