What’s next in agriculture? Autonomous tractors, vertical farms and more drones

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 869 views 

A worker with San Francisco-based Plenty prepares seeds for use in its vertical farm. (photo courtesy of Plenty)

Dirt. Nutrient-rich, alluvial-plain soil. It’s the foundation of Arkansas’ row crop agri industry. Rice, soybeans, cotton and other profitable plants have for generations risen from millions of eastern Arkansas acres. But what if dirt becomes unnecessary?

It’s a possibility, although not in the near future. But before “vertical farms” encroach on Arkansas’ leading economic sector, other innovations will and are disrupting the process, people and plants that in 2016 was an estimated $8 billion enterprise for the state.

Arkansas ranked 16th in the U.S. with $8 billion in total agricultural cash receipts in 2016, and 11th in animals and animal products with $4.7 billion. The state ranked first in rice production ($859 million), fourth in broilers ($346 million) sixth in cotton ($166 million) seventh in other poultry ($104 million), 10th in soybeans ($790 billion), 10th in soymeal ($201 million) and 10th in vegetable oil ($123 million).

Arkansas farmers in 2018 are projected to grow 3.6 million soybean acres, about 1.33 million rice acres and 650,000 corn acres. Just those acres are more than 16% of the total acres in Arkansas.

Innovation and disruption are no strangers to agri. There are the cotton gin and tractors, for example. Those two alone resulted in revolutionary changes, but also resulted in the loss of jobs ranging from farm hands to blacksmiths to plow makers. The other side of change is the creation of new jobs, such as tractor mechanics, implement manufacturers and jobs through weed and pest control production.

Much of that is ongoing in Arkansas. Drones are used to map fields, analyze crop health with infrared and other sensors, and, but not limited to, allow for selective application of herbicides and pesticides. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report suggests that by 2027, U.S. agricultural drone use will create 100,000 jobs and be an $82 billion business.

Also gaining momentum is “precision agriculture.” A primary goal of precision farming, according to CropLife, is where information is “transformed into knowledge to guide decisions of inputs and precise amounts of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides applied across crop fields. All of which would substantially reduce input costs, increase productivity, reduce the environmental footprint and transform crop production. Some of this has come to be, but much more has not.”

The 2017 CropLife/Purdue precision dealership survey, now in its 18th year, found that 75% of retailers offer grid and zone soil sampling products, up from 67% in 2015. Satellite imagery services were sold by 55% of respondents in 2017, up from 48% in 2015. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) were offered by 30% of dealers in 2017, up from 19% in 2015. (CropLife is a national media outlet covering the agri retail industry, and surveyed 209 agri dealerships, including co-ops and large national chains.)

And, of course, water, and everything related to its use. Or efforts to reduce its use.

“You’re not involved in agriculture if you’re not involved in [water] conservation,” said Mike Hamilton, an irrigation system educator with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Hamilton said the UA is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to analyze all aspects of irrigation. Part of that work is with “Pipe Planner,” a computer-aided irrigation system that analyzes detailed info about the crop being watered, furrow size and length, elevations, soil moisture, root depth and other factors. Google Maps is used to calculate precise field dimensions.

“That’s hitting a home run with growers. … Every furrow is going to change, and Pipe Planner is changing that measurement from furrow one all the way to furrow 400 … or more,” Hamilton said as an example. “We’re trying to put some science behind it, and not just turning on the switch when you think you need it. Now you know if the water is needed.”

Hamilton said water savings average upwards of 25%, with more research likely to boost that average. He estimates that 40% of row-crop acres in Arkansas use a computer-managed irrigation system.

“Some of these farmers will say, ‘I’ve been watering these fields for years,’ but you show them the results with one field, and they get it,” Hamilton said. “That’s the movement we’re in right now is the irrigation schedule — to put in the right amount of water based on the growth of the crop.”

Little Rock-based Delta Plastics on April 24 was awarded the 2018 ENVY award from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for its Pipe Planner software. Delta Plastics donated the Pipe Planner system and assistance and training to farmers.

Trends noted by CropLife and the technology described by Hamilton are part of the agri innovation Minoli Ratnatunga says will result in workforce skill set changes.

Ratnatunga, director of regional economics research for the Milken Institute, told Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics that automated/autonomous vehicles and automated processes will not only reduce the workforce, but change the skill set of the remaining workforce. She likened the changes to innovation and automation in natural resources mining.

“Workers have to be able to operate complex machinery, understand various monitoring and analysis devices in the field in order to do their jobs, and we would expect to see those kinds of changes (in agriculture) as well,” she said, adding that a benefit of innovation means “less deployment of pesticides and herbicides in order to achieve the same outputs.”

She advised that Arkansas private and public sector officials’ focus on agri innovation include “a higher capital investment” in workforce skills training. Ratnatunga did not have specific details on disruption within Arkansas’ agri sector because of innovation, noting that her research is on emerging ideas and technology.

“Where my organization is more focused is on the creation and innovation that might be part of the disruption. So, we’re looking at what the universities are doing, and where they’re contributing new ideas and new technologies that are useful to farmers in Arkansas and elsewhere,” she said.

And how are Arkansas universities doing?

“Looking at the universities in Arkansas, they weren’t very highly ranked on our university technology transfer and commercialization index.”

The big buzz in agri innovation is around vertical farming — often large buildings in which crops are grown in stacks with either little or no dirt. The growth of such crops requires no herbicides or pesticides, and numerous growing “seasons” multiply many times how much can be produced compared to conventional outdoor farming. It’s not entirely a new concept. About 40% of tomatoes sold fresh in U.S. grocery stores are grown in greenhouses, according to the University of Arizona’s School of Plant Sciences.

While too soon to predict how, or if, vertical farming will benefit or disrupt Arkansas’ agri industry, big money is lining up to build such farms around the world. Canada, China, Sweden and the Netherlands are among a growing number of countries with so-called “skyscraper farms” that are near urban centers. Fearing radioactivity getting into food, more than 200 vertical farms have been built in Japan following the 2011 earthquake that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant, according to several published reports.

San Francisco-based Plenty secured in July 2017 $200 million in funding from SoftBank Vision Fund. According to Plenty, its farms can produce up to 350 times more than conventional farms.

“Plenty farms maintain a perfect growing environment, use 1% of the water and a tiny fraction of the land of conventional agriculture, while delivering produce to local grocery shelves within hours of harvest,” according to the company.

Bowery, which has its first farm in Kearny, N.J., has raised $27.5 million to prove its vertical farm concept. GGV Capital was one of the investors.

“We think the industry is more or less near an inflection point,” GGV managing partner Hans Tung told Forbes. “It is no longer just a pie-in-the-sky theory. It has the chance to scale in the next five years.”