Farming gets Smart

You’d be forgiven for thinking of farming as old-fashioned, slow and a bit low-tech. Popular culture and commercials sell us a nostalgic image of the countryside. Singing farm-hands stand knee-deep in the same wholesome soil their branded potato chips came from. The camera pans to a family farm that embody honest and earthy old-fashioned values, as distant from our mobile screens and social media as Constable’s Hay wain and Wood’s American Gothic.

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The public image of agriculture is not particularly high-tech. Picture credit:

While this is all good for fast-food advertisers, it’s not at all accurate. Agriculture has always changed. From the first horse-drawn ploughs to the 20th century green revolution, farming has been striving to feed ever increasing populations more and more efficiently. This has meant that less and less unskilled labour has been needed in the fields, with more hands and brains to do more of everything else.

The next few years will be no exception in terms of change. Farms are undergoing a high-tech revolution, with processing power, GPS satellites, data science, drones, driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things all set to radically change the way farming is done. The application of these recent and new technologies to the rearing of crops and livestock has been variously called precision agriculture, smart agriculture, digital agriculture and farming 4.0. According to Richard Markwell, president of CEMA (the European association representing the European agricultural machinery industry),

It’s about bringing technology to farmers to ensure they can meet the challenge of producing more food, with less land, in a sustainable manner, at an affordable price in the supermarket.

Precision Agriculture uses automation to save labour, and to do things that would take humans too long, using sensors and data science to make farming more responsive to spatial variation (in soil conditions, in water availability and in the presence of pests). Use satellite images, drones and big data algorithms to get to know the soil at different locations in a field and you can choose the best crop variety for the specific location and only the necessary amount of fertiliser or pesticide. Put driverless technology into tractors and harvesters and you can replace heavy soil-compacting tractors with a fleet of small and nimble vehicles, crammed with sensors, and sending regular updates to a centralised database. It looks likely to be pretty user-friendly, with companies like Agricision developing iOS apps for the iPhone and iPad.

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Drones are likely to really take-off (!) in farming. Picture credit:

Previous agricultural revolutions have been associated with a reduced need for farmers and farm employees, but this needn’t be the case with precision agriculture. As Kit Franklin, a researcher at Harper Adams University and part of a team attempting to orchestrate the world’s first robot farmed field, says:

It’s not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won’t be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.

Experts anticipate that each of these approaches will provide large improvements in yields and reductions in the monetary and environmental costs associated with the over-application of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Goldman Sachs Research predicts that precision planting (the right seeds for each acre) alone could drive “a double digit improvement in yields”, and that precision farming could be a $240 billion market by 2050. CEMA‘s website states that “Data is the key ingredient for the European farming sector to become more productive and sustainable and remain competitive in a global environment”.

Given that we’ll need to feed almost ten billion people by 2050 and deal with the effects of climate change, the focus on high tech agriculture is certainly for the best – current practices may not be able to keep up. It’s an interesting time. The technology is still in its infancy, and agricultural retail communicators Crop Life estimate that fewer than 15% of US farmers are using data technologies to support decision making.

Weekly Blog Feature – Smart Farming

There’s a lot going on in high-tech agriculture at the moment. There’s lots of interesting science, new technology and new applications of existing technology. It will affect food security; large and small farms; farmers in developed and developing countries; arable, livestock and viticulture.

There’s so much going on (and I’d love to know more!) that I’ve decided to try to write a regular blog feature on it. I’ll be doing one per week – starting this week. My current ideas include drones in agriculture, precision agriculture investment, organic farming and applications in the developing world.

But, what I’d really love to hear are YOUR suggestions! Whether you’re a precision agriculture expert, or like me, curious to see whether a robot could control an English sheep-dog, please feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments. Oh, and remember to subscribe by email if you’re interested in future articles in the series.

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