This article first appeared in AgWeb.
From familiar tools like social networks to cutting-edge tech like self-driving vehicles, farming is going digital, and stakeholders will have a lot of innovative solutions to choose from in the coming years. This means they’ll also need to decide what the array of new technology means for increasing productivity, scaling business and driving sustainability.
Here’s what’s next for agtech in 2020 and beyond––and how evolving technology can impact farmers’ and landowners’ bottom lines.
1. Soil DNA Testing
A lot of great tools for testing soil health come from medicine. Thanks to DNA-mapping technology, farmers can test microbiomes and organic matter to analyze health metrics so that they can take better care of their soil.
For example, an agtech company called Pattern uses soil DNA testing to identify insects, nematodes, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens present in a field to predict and prevent crop damage.
DNA tests used to be costly in the medical world, but now that they’re widely produced, the basic tests for farming are more affordable than ever. They also generate a wealth of data that can be used for soil health analytics, which gives farmers more transparency about what’s happening on their farmland.
2. Smart Sensors
Similarly, sensors that have been mass produced and developed for industries such as medicine and manufacturing have become cost-effective and beneficial for agriculture.
There are a variety of new and innovative applications for sensors in farming. One type of sensor can scan a field from the sky—via drone—to detect dry patches and nutrient-deficient areas that are imperceptible to the human eye. Or a farmer can insert a sensor no larger than the size of a bean into a grain supply to monitor moisture levels. Sensors can also be attached to planters to assess soil density or built into combines for yield mapping and harvest documentation.
Once again, this tech lets farmers be more data-forward. Sensors enable farmers to collect unprecedented levels of data about their farmland––which means better problem solving when things go wrong and greater control over what goes right.
3. Farming as a Service
Subscription and pay-per-use farming services, referred to as Farming as a Service (FaaS) in the style of Software as a Service (SaaS), have grown more popular in recent years. Many startups are based on FaaS models.
The concept of FaaS is really just custom farming: a landowner pays someone else to perform certain services and manage equipment. The landowner retains ownership of the land, but contracts out its operation.
FaaS is a good model for farmers and landowners navigating the uncertainty of constantly changing market and commodity rates. By converting fixed upfront costs into variable ongoing costs, FaaS lets farmers and landowners make data-driven decisions about productivity and efficiency, which is especially helpful for small farmers operating on tight margins.
4. Streamlined Farm Rentals and Auctions
Similar to FaaS, there are now many more digital options for selling and renting farmland––much in the way that Airbnb allows anyone to rent out their homes. Some websites now offer farmland rental or sales platforms that farmers and landowners can use to find new business partners via the internet.
Building on the precision ag boom of the past several years, these platforms also provide ways for farmers to share the data they’re collecting with their landowners. This keeps the landowner informed about farm health and performance, and it helps the farmer build their reputation as a good operator.
5. Self-Driving Tractors
We’re certainly not ready for driverless cars––they’re not yet available for mass market because they still present too many safety concerns.
In farming, though, a driverless tractor is a lot less risky. It has no pedestrians or other vehicles to contend with. And with GPS, you can use geo fences to keep tractors on course and automatically shut them off if they drive off course.
Farmers today are often looking at ways to expand their operations. Down the road, automated farming has the potential to do just that. With the right automated equipment, a farmer can easily scale operations from a few thousand acres to 10 thousand acres, for example.
Research and Markets estimate the global market for agricultural robots will leap from $4.1 billion in 2018 to $10.1 billion in 2024.
These new technologies have the potential to take productivity and land stewardship to new heights. But how can farmers and landowners know whether adopting these tools as they become available is the right choice for their business? Tech might actually be able to help with that, too.
Tech Will Help Farmers and Landowners Make Smarter Decisions
Farmers will soon begin to shift their focus from maintaining a margin to managing growth. And while exciting new technology can help with scaling business, no solution is one-size-fits-all––it’s about choosing the path forward that makes the most sense for your farmland. So how do you scale intelligently and not opportunistically?
In the coming years, tech will enable farmers to make smart decisions about new investments, too.
Retiring farmers who don’t have succession plans or takeover operations leave a lot of open acres on the table. Current farmers might want to pick them up. And if they do, they’ll need to manage a growing operation.
That’s where agtech developments will really start to shine. With tools that provides a predictive model, farmers can get a better idea of where they’ll need to invest to successfully manage their farm’s expansion. And alternatively, these models could also inform farmers if expanding operations wouldn’t be a wise business decision.
Farming has long prized being at the forefront of human innovation, so it makes sense that now is the time for agtech to make farming smarter and more efficient than ever. In 2020 and beyond, agtech will design better ways for farmers and landowners to understand their land, choose the right tools and empower better farmland stewardship.