Technology is transforming ag. Are you ready?
Robots that pick vegetables. Sensors that zap weeds. Plants that signal when they’re stressed. Fitbits for cattle. Self-driving tractors. Lab-grown meat. Automation. Digitization. Regeneration.
The sheer volume of technology in the farm and food industry right now is mind-boggling.
I heard about these cutting-edge offerings and much more at the recent Ag Innovation Forum, hosted by the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City. The presentations were fascinating, but, frankly, overwhelming when you consider the staggering number of tools, equipment, gadgets and scientific advancements that are either in the pipeline or presently online.
Amid the information overload, however, two simple but critical questions rose from the noise. Does the technology truly pencil out? And will farmers adopt it?
Those are the questions that plague researchers, agribusinesses, universities, equipment manufacturers, tech companies, venture capitalists and others who are pouring time and resources into innovations that are meant to solve complex challenges and transform agriculture as we know it. But farmers typically don’t like to change without proven results.
The ag tech movement has already changed the way research is funded. Dr. Bill Wilson of North Dakota State University, who spoke at the Ag Innovation Forum, pinpointed Monsanto’s acquisition of the Climate Corporation data platform in 2013 as the catalyst for venture capital’s entrance into ag tech. Until then, most agricultural research and development came from the public sector, such as universities and government entities. Private companies now account for the majority of ag tech funding.
In fact, over the past decade, external capital has been pouring into the agriculture food-technology industry to the tune of about $18.2 billion in 2021, an approximate 38% year-on-year growth since 2013. As a result, the number of farmer-facing start-ups and investment opportunities has ballooned.
InnerPlant was among those highlighted at the Ag Innovation Forum. The California-based company is developing genetically engineered crops that “talk” to growers. It uses new sensing and satellite technologies to detect signals emitted by the plants and alert growers when there is an issue such as nutrient deficiency or disease.
In another example, Dr. Wilson discussed the Fargo-based Grand Farm, which launched in 2019 as a trailblazing research site for emerging technology and best practices in modern agriculture. With hefty backing by Microsoft, the project’s lofty goal is to create the first fully autonomous farm by 2025.
And ag innovation isn’t just for crops. Dr. Justin Welsh of Merck Animal Health shared how his company is working with precision livestock technology to detect diseases among feedlot cattle, which can reduce the use of antibiotics. His company also recently acquired Vence, a virtual fencing system that uses advanced GPS tracking to monitor the location of animals within pastures or grazing area.
Pretty cool, huh? But Wilson cautioned that “cool” products don’t always sell. Farmers indicate there must be a double-digit return on investment before they will consider integrating new products or technologies into their operation. And the vast menu of choices can create analysis paralysis.
For its part, MFA helps cut through the clutter with our own research on new products such as biologicals, crop protectants and traited seeds before making recommendations to our growers. We’re also committed to staying on the leading edge of data management and precision technology to ensure that MFA customers benefit from innovations that actually add value.
Farmers are facing immense challenges: input price increases, volatile markets, extreme weather, shifting consumer behavior, labor shortages and a changing regulatory environment. Ag tech has an opportunity to play a central role in solving these challenges, if there is a concerted focus on actually addressing the real problems at hand.
As new ag tech offerings become viable and available at the farm level, they should be considered with a critical but open mind. Look past the “gee-whiz” factor and ask those all-important questions. Does the technology truly pencil out? Does it make sense to adopt it?
The reality is that agriculture must continue to produce more with every acre of available farmland, and technology holds promise to help achieve that goal.
Robots and all.
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