Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Farmers, as a general rule, have traditionally been a technologically savvy bunch. Dating back to the early 1800s, farmers rapidly adopted a steady stream of advancements in seed, fertilization, and mechanization that reduced labor and improved yields.

Today that same spirit of innovation exists in farms across the country, but the steady stream of innovation has become a torrent, with advancements introduced at a dizzying pace. Here are just a few of the innovations we’re following in 2021.

The Internet of Things (IOT). Also called “Smart Farming,” IOT technology is based around in-field sensors that constantly monitor the ag ecosystem, from the basic (light, ambient and soil temperatures, irrigation) to the microbial. Managing these sensors remotely, farmers can log, analyze, and use the data to improve practices, increase profitability, and lessen the environmental impact of farming by driving sustainability into the process. IOT technology is not a new innovation; however, the costs are plummeting at the same time that options for customization are increasing. This makes it easier for smaller farms, specialty growers, and livestock operations to take advantage of IOT innovations without having to mortgage the farm or serve as IT integrators and data scientists.

Non-traditional investors. Hand-in-hand with the data revolution led by IOT, a new source of agricultural revenue is starting to make noise in ag sectors. For example, Indigo Ag, a Boston-based biotech startup, raised $200 million last year from new and existing investors, with the lion’s share coming from FedEx. This is not an isolated example. According to Progressive Farmer, venture capitalists poured $2.8 Billion into Ag tech companies last year. Well-known names such as Amazon, Microsoft, and others are also making significant investments in ag technology. This should increase the number and speed-to-market of innovations, although it will likely raise questions about compatibility and support.

Autonomous machines are ready for take-off. Precision farming is pretty well-established – at least on large-acreage operations and those with high-value crops. But as farmers continue to pressure companies to help them reduce inputs while increasing yield, robotics will begin to play an increased role in different and varied ways across the ag spectrum. Equipment and drones featuring cameras, machine-learning, and AI are already available. And as costs drop and more companies get into the field, they’ll play a starring role on more and more farms.

5G will benefit farmers. Granted, 5G technology likely won’t reach any rural setting in 2021 – if ever. But the discussions around 5G have typically focused on bandwidth and latency; now we’re beginning to hear serious discussions around coverage. This is critical to farm operations. Coverage is an essential element to evolve all the technology and sustainability efforts listed above. The ease at which farmers can collect and analyze data from sensors and equipment and share it with consumers is the foundation for success in these efforts. With the emphasis on digital agriculture – coupled with outside investment – it’s likely we’ll see resolutions to coverage issues in rural America, even if it isn’t necessarily a 5G solution.

Traceability links farmers with consumers. Consumers want to know from where their food and fiber is derived, and in some cases, are willing to pay a premium for this. Farmers, at the center of the discussion, want to do more with less, using fewer chemicals, nutrients, and herbicides while still generating enough food to feed the world. Now, thanks to advancements in data collection – based partly on the IOT revolution mentioned above – farmers have the ability to provide these details, linking producers with consumers, making the food system work better for everyone. Ideally this will occur organically, rather than as a legislative mandate. But we’re keeping a close eye on any EU-style traceability efforts at either the state or federal level.

Precision gene editing evolves. Gene editing, like genetic modification (GMO), isn’t a new phenomenon. However, until recently it was a fairly slow and arduous process, as well as an expensive one. Today using gene editing technologies CRISPRs and TALENs, plant breeders can edit genes related to a specific trait. And these advances in technology, coupled with the deregulation of gene editing by the USDA in 2020, has sped the time between an edit and a crop to the field to as little as 18 to 24 months compared to the 10 to 13 years with the highly regulated GMOs. Moreover, it significantly lowers costs. One study showed that precision editing slashed the overall investment by 90 percent compared to the GMO method.

Regenerative Agriculture becomes a reality. Also called “carbon farming,” regenerative agriculture is another example of an innovation that isn’t necessarily new but that could become a lot more common in 2021. In its simplest terms, Regenerative Agriculture is a set of practices that builds organic matter back into the soil, allowing the soil to retain more water, and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. Although there’s significant debate over how much carbon can be stored this way – and for how long – any serious initiatives to sequester carbon will see abundant support from multiple quarters as a potential way to fight climate change. Australia started paying farmers for some regenerative agriculture practices last year. With the new administration’s focus on climate change, it’s likely we’ll see similar conversations in the near future.

Look for additional articles on Regenerative Agriculture discussions, as well as other technological innovations listed.