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Emerging Technologies in Agriculture

January 11, 2017
  • Agriculture
  • Facts & Insights

Agriculture in the Northwest is not only prepared to embrace innovation and emerging technologies, but is often setting the pace nationally. Adopting innovative biological and engineering technologies offers an approach to deal with ever-increasing financial, social and human resource challenges.

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Written by Jim McFerson – Director, WSU Research & Extension Center; Professor of Horticulture

Agriculture in the Northwest is not only prepared to embrace innovation and emerging technologies, but is often setting the pace nationally.

Adopting innovative biological and engineering technologies offers an approach to deal with ever-increasing financial, social and human resource challenges. Although technologies alone are not THE solution for success in ag, a number of them offer promising near- and long-term opportunities. As with any business decision, potential solutions must be evaluated for return on investment then acted on quickly, before opportunity passes. This can be tough even for sectors that move more quickly than agriculture. American farmers with a mean age over 60 are generally conservative, looking to mitigate risk rather than buy the latest shiny object – with the exception of a new tractor or two.

Embracing Technology

More farmers now operate with their smartphone or tablet in the pickup. And the next generation is ahead of their parents. Electronic recordkeeping is increasingly the norm. Sophisticated web-based weather information guides field operations and spray programs. Trade publications tout the latest and greatest drone applications. Farmers are quickly adopting new crop varieties and production practices and inputs. Elevators, storage facilities, packing lines and processing operations are installing the latest equipment.

Certainly, crop agriculture in the Northwest is not technology averse. Precision agriculture, or smart farming, is looking a lot less aspirational nowadays. Yet, what is delaying wider adoption? Producers should consider an array of genetic and engineering technologies relevant to crop agriculture, if not for immediate investment, then at least to position themselves for adoption as circumstances dictate.

Automation Technology

Nothing is more critical right now than technology that can make the workplace safer and more productive. Most field crops have mechanized throughout their production, handling and storage operations. Not so for many labor-intensive specialty crops, where the quantity and quality of the available workforce threaten the viability of many. Industries relying on a workforce with undocumented laborers and the current political paralysis have no other choice – innovate or sell out to real estate developers, if possible.

Automation technology is any tool that can reduce operator workload. Robotics, removing the human from the operation, gets all the attention, deservedly so in dairy. But much remains to be done before other sectors, especially those with a more limited market potential for vendors, employ a range of agbots. Even GPS-guided tractors and planters, although a marvelous and cost-effective technology where the driver basically monitors systems, are a long way from unmanned operation. Still, advances in robotics and application to ag are happening; start-up Abundant Robotics is testing its most recent prototype of a robotic apple harvester this season in Washington, with commercial introduction targeted for 2018.

Replacement of hand labor is an obvious target and extremely important for many Northwest specialty crops, whether it’s robotized fruit packing lines, RFID traceability chips, automated irrigation systems, canopy manipulators or mechanical harvesters. Even something such as a web-based decision support system for pest management can greatly reduce the time someone spends on an ATV checking the crop. Not THE solution, but this sort of broad automation allows the operator to create more efficient plans year-round and execute those plans appropriately.

Sensor Technology

One technology that seems like it should be more used than it is involves sensors and sensor platforms. Computer-driven systems with reliable optical sensors are commercial reality for grain, fruit and vegetable crops. These sensor systems are easier to implement in a facility with a controlled, sanitizable environment than in the open field. Given the necessity to adhere to customer and regulatory demands for food safety, such facilities are not an option anymore, regardless of cost.

Trade publications or the public imagination could not give more attention to satellite, fixed-wing and unmanned aerial systems in the open field. Yet they are far from achieving their full potential. Many Big Data challenges have been addressed: high-throughput data processing, robust algorithms, user-friendly interfaces. Anyone can fly a camera-equipped drone now and download thousands of images. But what do they mean? Software and hardware are far ahead of our ability to interpret massive datasets, or make management decisions based on information hidden within. We still need old-fashioned agronomists and horticulturists to explain what those pixels mean in terms of water or nutrient inputs. Someday soon, though, farmers in the Northwest will be managing intra-field variation with sensor suites and real-time weather data to make more efficient use of those inputs and maintaining an environmentally responsible footprint.

Genetic Technology

Finally, genetics is the technology that sets the bar for achieving the potential of any farming operation. All the management in the world cannot turn a lackluster variety into a bin buster. Whether seed or clonally propagated, crop improvement has provided Northwest farmers with genetic packages giving them an opportunity to optimize their site and their management capabilities, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Genetic engineering has a mixed record in crops where it has been applied, but clearly it is a technology that the majority of field-crop producers have adopted where available. The emerging technology of gene editing may provide the revolution across crops that genetic engineering has not; even conventional breeding is now more efficient and effective thanks to application of genomics technologies.

A lot of technologies are out there. Some have emerged, some not quite yet. Some will be expensive busts and bring down the unfortunate early adopter. Others will be amazing game changers and reward their investors’ insight. I am confident the economic viability of the Northwest’s agriculture enterprise, built as it is on a commitment to quality, innovation and hard work, will sort it out.

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