Future of Food, Part IV: A Farmer with a Vision

Fourth in an occasional series. (See part one, part two and part three.)

For Brian Scott, a row crop farmer in Indiana, self-driving cars aren’t all that futuristic sounding.

“They’re very cool, but farmers have been able to let their tractors drive themselves for quite a while,” Scott said. “Early adopters have been doing it for about two decades now.”

It’s easy to think of farming as an old-fashioned endeavor, but if that’s the case, you haven’t been paying attention. Just like the technology we carry in our pockets, farm technology has grown by leaps and bounds to make farming better. Today’s farmers use self-driving tractors, tablets, smartphones, satellite imaging—even drones. This tech (as well as loads of data) is allowing farmers to grow more food on their land while reducing their water, fertilizer, and pest-control needs.

As Scott explained, “Precision ag begins when you start tying inputs and practices to locations with GPS.” GPS technology tracks what parts of the field need more moisture or show signs of pest damage, and which already have been seeded or treated with pesticides or fertilizers. Then the technology can give each specific spot exactly what it needs—no more, no less.

The benefits can be huge: Precision agriculture technology allows farmers to reduce inputs, like fertilizer and pesticides. That reduction both saves farmers money and also contributes to environmental conservation.

“We don't look at fields as homogeneous units anymore," Scott said. "Each field is different, and there are many differences within a single field. We have the tools now to treat our fields according to their natural variability, which is good for us and helps reduce our environmental impact.”

Here are three things farmers are using to take farming into the future:

Swath Control

Scott says he uses a tool called “swath control” to reduce inputs. That means he can equip machines like tractors with maps showing what sections of fields already have fertilizer or seed.

With swath control, he said, “Whenever my fertilizer applicator begins to cross an area that was already applied with fertilizer, individual rows or small sections of rows can automatically shut off when they cross that line. Swath control eliminates double application on end rows.”

Swath control, which Scott says is a “fantastic tool,” also helps keep food costs lower by avoiding waste.

Variable Rate Technology (VRT)

While precision agriculture allows farmers to reduce inputs like fertilizer, it’s just as important to get inputs in the right places.

Variable rate technology allows growers to do just that. Farmers can create maps of fields, called "prescriptions." Those maps are uploaded to a tractor or applicator’s computer. The applicator then tailors the amount of fertilizer applied to small segments of the field.

“We are putting the inputs exactly where they are needed,” Scott said.

Variable rate technology is also being used as part of irrigation systems across the country. In an era of drought, this level of precision is essential for water savings.

And the possibilities for VRT are endless. “Soon I hope to combine variable rate with aerial images from drones to make fertilizer applications based on the varying crop health across a field,” Scott said.

Drones

It may sound fantastic, but the agricultural sector is considered one of the biggest markets for drones.

Scott says he’s been using drones for a few years now. As a bonus, in addition to scoping out his fields, his drones provide a lot of content for his social media channels (which I highly recommend—check out his Twitter and blog).

With drones, Scott says that farmers can “observe patterns and abnormalities, both good and bad, which are easily missed from ground level. Certain things stand out from the air that are pretty much invisible from the ground.”

The drone imagery helps farmers make sure their crops are getting exactly what they need, when they need it.

“The technology makes us smarter,” Scott said. “We know things about our fields now that could not be known before.”

Final Thoughts

Though science has brought incredible advancements in seed varieties, there is so much more than that going on in agricultural technology. The same technologies that are bringing sitcoms and driving directions to you and me faster than ever are also improving how our food is grown, making it more available, affordable, and sustainable.

Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and agriculture clients.