Bugs for Breakfast: Science and Technology in Farming

When you think of a farmer, do you picture someone tilling the land, riding a tractor across a field, and checking each one of their cows or chickens to make sure they are healthy and happy? Or do you picture someone monitoring AI sensors, checking apps, and testing the latest gadgets?

If you know your farm trends, it’s both—and more.

Today’s farmers check their livestock with the help of modern technology and use sensors to identify where and when the land needs to be tilled. In fact, a variety of STEAM concepts are employed, from engineering solutions for water usage problems to tapping into biology trends in order to create eco-friendly new crops.

If you had a chance to check out our May Creator of the Month, Dan Harth at Ipswich Libraries in Australia, you might recognize some of these ideas. Dan’s game, Future Farm, teaches players about STEAM skills while challenging them to imagine what a farm centuries in the future might look like.

Back to the present: Today’s agricultural technology and science is more advanced than ever, and modern farmers are adopting new tools, approaches, and techniques to improve the food production process.  

Agtech Investment Continues to Grow

Agriculture technology (agtech) is a lucrative market and powerful driver of both innovation and investment. Investments in agriculture technology grew 29 percent in 2017, researchers at AgFunder report. Agriculture startups received a record $10.1 billion in investments last year, though the total number of deals actually dropped 17 percent. Investors made larger bets on fewer companies, instead of spreading out their funds to see what works.  

Agtech is growing just as strongly as fintech, medtech, and any other “tech” you can think of. Agriculture startups aren’t limited to Silicon Valley, but are also found across the United States and globally, with farmers and innovators working together.

The Silicon Valley AgTech conference draws more than 700 attendees each year to present their businesses and discuss industry trends, while the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco boasts more than 1,000 delegates, 80 speakers, and 1,500 one-on-one meetings to discuss everything from global agtech potential to blockchain. It will host an additional event in London in October 2018.

So what are all of these agtech professionals developing? What are the next great technological advances that will help farmers? The answers aren’t too far away from what you likely use or hear about every day.  

Engineers are Developing Self-Driving Tractors Image

Engineers are Developing Self-Driving Tractors

One of the first places most people will recognize consumer technology helping farming is the development of self-driving tractors. John Deere has been developing a driverless tractor since the mid-1990s. The company wanted a simple model that would drive down a field and turn, but realized how hard it was to replicate a farmer’s instincts.

“We have to have the ability to sense everything the human would inside of the system related to the quality of the job,” Dan Leibfried, director of embedded solutions at the John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, says.

Even with more than 20 years of autonomous development experience, they still haven’t perfected the product. John Deere, for instance, sells autonomous combines (which harvest grain), but the vehicles still require a person in the driver’s seat, monitoring the process on a camera. Humans are still needed to override the system when something goes wrong.

Many of the trends that consumers see on store shelves and in the news are reflected in farm technology.

“Some of the new sensors that help you autonomously park your car, parallel park, backup sensors, cameras and things like that — all that stuff — the cost has come way down on it and it’s allowed us to leverage it more in our machines,” Matt Rushing, product line vice president at  Global Crop Care tells CNBC.

As this technology advances, it will move into the agtech world, and will continue to become more affordable to farmers who are careful about their investments when it comes to their crops.     

Farmers Use AI to Monitor Their Crops

Technology has given rise to the trend of “digital agriculture,” where sensors report on crops in real time, almost like a Facebook newsfeed. These tools alert farmers to how much rain has fallen recently, where nutrients in the soil are lacking, and what crops are growing slowly.

“Information on the farm is now being collected the same way we collect information on our cellphones or our iPads,” Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corporation, which develops these apps, tells CNNMoney. With this data, farmers can make decisions on how to improve the growing process, and can easily see how their crops are doing across as many as 40 fields without having to physically view them.

Farmers also use AI to receive alerts related to their crops in order to monitor them more closely.  CNNTech recently profiled NatureSweet, a tomato company that uses AI to reduce pests and diseases within its greenhouses. The company says the technology will eventually improve the greenhouse tomato yield by 20 percent.

Before the technology was implemented, NatureSweet’s 8,000 employees had to walk through the greenhouses and check for problems. This was an expensive and slow process, with inspections only taking place once a week. Now, the plants are monitored 24/7 and cameras recognize signs of trouble, such as dying plants or insect infestations, so growers can intervene before it’s too late.  

As AI sensors become more common in the market, and therefore easier to use and affordable, farmers will be able to invest in them and operate their farms more efficiently. This leads to less waste and better yields.

“State of the art smart farming solutions and new Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are enabling many American growers to take a more sustainable approach to the monitoring of livestock, crops, and soil conditions,” Betsy Huber, president of rural advocacy group National Grange, writes. “These technologies are transforming rural America by increasing the quality, quantity, and cost-effectiveness of agricultural production.”

The results mean better produce for consumers and increased income for American farmers.

AI Also helps With Livestock ImageAI Also helps With Livestock

Technology can also help when it comes to cattle.

For example, Moocall is an agtech startup that created IoT sensors for pregnant cows. Strapped onto the animal’s tail, the device measures tail movement to predict the onset of calving, alerting the farmer when a cow is about to give birth. The technology allows farmers to intervene quickly and help deliver the calf safely. More than 15,000 farms use Moocall worldwide, freeing farmers from continually checking the status of the cow in person.   

Moocall isn’t the only wearable technology used to help cows. In an article for the Financial Times, Nic Fildes writes that “smart cows” have all kinds of wearable tech. Some gadgets measure movement to determine an animal’s health, while another company measures digestive health through a monitor in the cow’s rumen, or first stomach. There are even udder sensors to monitor the quality of the milk.

These tools are also of particular interest to animal welfare groups. Not only do cow and calf survival rates increase, but the human helpers can identify problems early on and take steps to reduce the pain or prevent illness that could lead to death.

Some Farmers Are Tapping into Bug Crops ImageSome Farmers Are Tapping into Bug Crops

While many farmers grow crops to keep up with consumer demand, other farmers, organizations, and scientists are working to change what we eat to protect the environment. Environmental science is an essential part of growing crops and livestock, and without it most farmers wouldn’t produce a successful yield. One trend on the rise in North America and Europe is the growth of insects for human consumption.

Naak is a company in Quebec that makes cricket-powered energy bars. They recently highlighted the benefits of raising insects over beef on the natural world:

  • Crickets require 12x less food than beef to reach maturity.
  • Crickets require 2000x less water than beef to reach maturity, taking into account the water needed for the crops they eat.
  • Crickets also release 100x fewer greenhouse emissions than cows.    

Some farmers are already investing in cricket science and growth, as insect advocates push them to move toward more eco-friendly livestock.

For example, Jarrod Goldin is the cofounder of Entomo Farms in Ontario, Canada, an operation that has three barns about 20,000 feet in size. The company raises and sells crickets, including whole crickets to snack on, cricket flour, and cricket protein powder.

“In terms of the mechanization on the farming side, there isn’t much precedent out there,” Goldin says. “We’ve really had to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and figure things out on our own.”

Unfortunately, many American consumers still get caught up in the “ick factor” at the thought of eating insects. This is why companies like Naak add them to protein bars and Entomo Farms creates a variety of recipe guides. They aren’t alone. Brooklyn Bugs is dedicated to raising awareness about edible insects, and even hosts a festival to get kids excited about the taste and crunch of their favorite bugs.

Technology Can Reduce Water Usage

Regardless of the types of crops or livestock grown, more farmers than ever are concerned about water usage. Agriculture represents 70 percent of all worldwide water use, and consumers get a large percentage of water from their food. However, water is growing increasingly precious and more farmers are turning to reduction and optimization options to reduce their water use.

“Thanks to modern science, agriculture has been learning a great deal about the life cycle of our planet and has been researching and developing ways to reduce water usage on the farm and ranch,” Logan Hawkes at Southwest Farm Press writes.  

In an article for Successful Farming, Laurie Bedord profiled one Kansas farmer who was looking to reduce his water consumption to protect the local aquifer. He implemented a voluntary 33 percent reduction of water use and said he would try to reach 50 percent if he maintained the same yield and profit margins. Bedord highlighted a few key technologies that Kansas farmers are using to do more with less:

  • Investing in drip irrigation technology to reduce evaporation loss.
  • Installing moisture sensors to see how thirsty crops really are.
  • Rotating crops and increasing investment in crops that use less water.

Even with the help of technological investments, local farmers need to use careful planning, decision making, and critical thinking to ensure a successful crop.   

Kansas isn’t alone in these innovations. California has faced severe droughts over the past few years, forcing almond farmers to reduce their water usage to comply with state guidelines. Fortunately, farmers in the area have been testing different options for decades to reduce their “water footprint.”

“Water footprint is a theoretical approach for determining the amount of water – direct and indirect – used in the production of a product.” Gabriele Ludwig of the Almond Board of California says. For reference, in the past 20 years, almond farmers have reduced the amount of water needed to grow one pound of almonds by 33 percent.

These technological advancements can be shared across the country and across the globe. A successful method to reduce water use on one farm in the US can be shared to help preserve water in drought-stricken regions nationally in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

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