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High-tech veggies

5 ways precision agriculture is changing the world

How many terabytes went into last night’s dinner?

Increasingly, farmers across the United States are finding more ways to deploy technology in their fields and within their farm operation — and for good reason. With the world’s population expected to expand by 2.5 billion in the next 50 years, it is critical that farmers tap into the latest advances in digital agriculture to enhance productivity while also sustaining the environment.

John Fulton, an associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, is at the forefront of technological trends that are changing farming as we know it.

  1. Farms are going digital.

    “Farms of the future will capitalize on the use of digital technologies. They’ll be places where machines, people and other assets are connected digitally to the Internet, allowing farmers to share production data with their private-sector partners quickly to generate sub-field management information and access market information more rapidly for their products.

    “At Ohio State, we are working to create a dedicated ‘digital farm of the future’ where we can conduct long-term, field-scale studies using machine, agronomic, production information and other management data that the university and other institutions can access through a central repository, bringing new science and knowledge to improve agriculture in the state of Ohio.

    “A challenge today includes wireless connectivity in rural America. Once rural America has a consistent connection to the Internet, that really changes the dynamic of agriculture. This connectivity will more rapidly advance digital agriculture.”

  1. Machines are collecting "mountains of data."

    “Because many farmers already use technologies, with the majority of new machines connected to the Internet, they’re generating mountains of data. And the data can be uploaded automatically to the cloud, which makes it more accessible.

    “As a grower, if one is able to obtain information for my farm and my growing conditions, it can help me select the right inputs to maximize yield and profit. It’s really helped growers pencil out costs on a field level and even sub-field level rather than at an enterprise (or farm-wide) level.

    “Ohio State is one of the founding members of the Agricultural Data Coalition — a farmer-controlled, farmer-designed effort to store, organize and share the mounds of data that farms are generating. A group of universities, along with industry and agricultural service providers, are trying to offer growers the ability to improve and accelerate their decisions through the use of data they are collecting.”

  2. Farming is becoming more automated.

    “We’re seeing more and more automation brought into the ag sector, especially through the potential adoption of autonomous machines. They’ve been around for some time, but there have been limitations. We’re on a social road of acceptance. Once autonomous vehicles become socially accepted within the public sector, we’ll see them more in agriculture.

    “These autonomous machines can address labor shortages in agriculture with the potential to cover more acres in a day’s time than those driven by an operator. In the near future, we’ll see more robotic solutions offered commercially with scenarios where one person oversees multiple robots operating across fields.

    “The machinery’s functions also are becoming more automated. Some of the new technologies, like auto guidance and auto section control on sprayers and planters, have allowed us to be more efficient during field operations. Auto section technology maintains the accuracy of applicators, automating when they’re turned off and on. A lot of the new technology also is scalable. You’ve got a smaller platform that can be used by small, medium and large farms. These smaller machines can work more hours.”

  3. Technology is helping organic and other "natural" ways of growing to thrive.

    “Broadly speaking, weeds become an issue on these type of farms, but we’re starting to see through automation and sensors as ways to reduce the amount of pesticides and better control weeds. There are also new tools that can detect types of weeds and determine the amount of pesticide needed to kill them — or mechanically kill them.

    “For organic and specialty crop farmers, much of this weeding has been handled by a large number of laborers. But today, a labor shortage is hitting the U.S., and automation is helping fill that void.”

  4. Precision ag is protecting natural resources.

    “We’re looking at precision ag to reduce the carbon footprint, which goes to more efficiently using and applying fertilizers. If I can better place the fertilizer and increase uptake by the plant, that reduces the risk of phosphorus and nitrogen getting into our waterways, which is a concern today. Precision ag is helping improve lake and surface water quality and maintain safe drinking water, while ensuring farmers stay productive and profitable.”