Old MacDonald's New Connected Farm

Dirt. Crops. Cows. They're not what most people immediately associate with the new era of digital connectivity, but farmers managing every level of agricultural operations are merging their physical and digital worlds, turning the tools (and creatures) of their trade into intelligent things.

Global trends forecast water shortages and a population that is expected to grow by 1.6 billion before 2050, requiring a boost in farm productivity by 70%, according to a report by Beecham Research. The International Food Policy Research Institute reports that agricultural technologies could increase global crop production by as much as 67% and cut food prices nearly in half by 2050.

And farming has become an even bigger bet in the wake of the 2014 Farm Bill. Today, 1.7 million farmers in the United States must choose between two new options: an insurance policy against lost revenue or compensation if crop prices drop.

For a growing number of them, a better way to calculate their future is through precision farming (or precision agriculture), which is the use of technology to achieve the best quality, quantity, and financial returns on crops.

"In the past, precision agriculture technology was implemented by big agribusinesses due to high costs," says Dr. Michael Valivullah, chief technology officer with the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Nowadays, a continuing decrease in remote sensor costs and advances in cloud-computing technology, tablets, and smart devices have made precision agriculture affordable by many farmers." And with about 97% of U.S. farms being family operated, the market is huge for these sensor technologies.

These new technologies—which include everything from GPS services, sensors, and big data calculation—will make it so that farmers won't have to rely as much on their gut. Instead, they can make decisions based on detailed information about water, climate changes, soil quality, the health of their crops and livestock, and the conditions of their machinery.

Water Conservation and Irrigation

The recent drought in California—a place where a reported 80% of its groundwater supports agriculture in the Central Valley and whose governor, Edward G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., recently ordered a 25% reduction in water use by urban water agencies—is a clarion call for new solutions.

Given that the Central Valley produces one-fourth of the food Americans consume, real-time technologies that can monitor soil moisture and water usage, and thereby manage water costs, are critical. This type of precision farming can minimize waste and produce high-quality crops, better productivity, and increased profits. "Technology is an excellent antidote to scarcity," says J. Matthew Pryor, CEO of Observant, an irrigation technology company. "Connected devices execute new prescriptions, and the outcomes are observed and fed back into the system for verification and optimization. This closed-loop operation will deliver yield improvements, water and energy efficiency, and better, more visible management of overall farming operations."

Given the enormous potential for a cure to our water-shortage problems, it makes one wonder why intelligent farming technologies are not being implanted everywhere. For one, the technology is reasonably new, says Pryor, but also water scarcity is a relatively new priority for farmers. "When it comes to technology, farmers tend to be conservative to adopt it because they can't afford the cost of unreliable or unproven technology," he says. "Once a technology crosses that threshold, however, it tends to be adopted very quickly and pervasively.

Keeping Track of Livestock

Collars placed on grazing animals and cameras in the fields help farmers keep track of their herds from their phones or home computers. Tags placed on livestock can send data on everything from the animals' health to their mating patterns. "We use our connection in many ways on the farm," says Val Wagner, a farmer in North Dakota. "Our tractors, planters, and combines are connected through precision equipment (including iPads), and apps to our wireless camera system allow me to check on our cows that are having calves from any distance without disturbing nature. Living in North Dakota, and calving in what is normally a cold-weather cycle, [this technology] provides our farm a great tool that can save a calf from being born outside, which can be disastrous when it's below 40 degrees outside."

But, of course, as with any new technology, there are some downsides. Tech glitches can be time-consuming and expensive to fix, Wagner says. "Although many rural areas complain about Internet service, we're blessed with fiber optics to every home in our service area through our phone company. The speed is probably some of the fastest in the nation—but it gets you nowhere if you do not have power!"

Sensors on Crops and Farm Machinery

Sensors connected to combine harvesters, tractors, and other equipment will allow farmers to collect a new level of information about their crops and soil. Variable-rate technology (VRT), for example, uses historical data about the most fertile areas of land and those that have had high crop yields, to build a map of a farmer's field that would display the presence of fertilizer, defoliants, pesticides, herbicides, and plant-growth regulators. Using the technology, the farmer could tailor the levels of these materials to increase or decrease automatically when appropriate.

Flex President of Industrial and Emerging Industries Doug Britt suggests smart farming technologies will play an increasing role in efficient agriculture.

"Sensing technology makes farms more intelligent and more connected through precision agriculture," Britt says. "This is just one way to increase the quality and quantity of agricultural production."

The information collected from sensors not only directly helps the farmers but also the agriculture business overall. Valivullah, the USDA's CTO, explains that the Internet of Things makes it possible to get nationwide seed water and yield data directly from machine sensors. Combining those metrics with other information, such as weather patterns, can create big data sets that will recognize trends that inform precision farming.

Environmentally Safe Pesticides

The food and agriculture industries are focused on finding effective and inexpensive alternatives to chemical pesticides. Natural pheromones—chemicals produced by animals that influence the behavior of another animal of the same species—are now being used to disrupt the mating patterns of pests that eat fruit. A company called Semios is using the Internet of Things to offer orchard farmers a wireless network of sensors that can be placed in their fruit trees. The sensors help detect when the pest population is too high. Based on this number, the system can then deliver the accurate amount of pheromones needed to activate and disrupt the pests' mating patterns. In many cases, this technology minimizes—and in some cases completely replaces—the use of pesticides. This, in turn, saves the farmer money.

The Connected Tractor and Future of AgBots

Onboard telematics software that monitors farm machinery's hours of use and maintenance needs also helps improve farming productivity. Farmers can gather data that are analyzed by software and provide feedback that will suggest exactly what should be planted and where, how much fertilizer to add, and when harvesting should begin. "The micro-level field data collected from these sources are helping farmers target operations precisely before plant stress sets in, at the right time and in the right amount, saving resources and increasing productivity and profit," Valivullah says.

GPS technology on tractors, combine harvesters, and sprayers let farmers operate remotely by telling the onboard computer system which area of land the machines should work. A tractor's steering controls are connected to the GPS, which lets the machine stay on course (think: the early scenes in Interstellar). This is especially helpful to humans tilling soil who often end up covering the same area twice. The GPS technology saves fuel and equipment hours.

There is also ongoing research that could replace traditional tractors. Researchers at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, are developing AgBots, which are small autonomous machines. They would come with sensor networks, cameras, and software that would provide farmers with information about everything from managing weeds and water levels to monitoring herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. According to Tristan Perez, a professor of robotics at Queensland University of Technology, these machines could lower energy, labor, and chemical costs by up to 40%. The data from AgBots enable farmers to extract key information for management decisions. They'll know not only when to apply herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, but how much to use.