The saying “work smarter, not harder” dates back to the 1930s and is attributed to Allen F. Morgenstern, an industrial engineer who created a work simplification program that boosted productivity while requiring less effort.
Fast-forward 90 years, and that same saying has taken on new meaning in the farming industry. The convergence of high tech and agriculture has resulted in innovative new technologies like electrification, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) that are addressing farmers’ most pressing needs, allowing them to achieve new levels of efficiency and boost their bottom lines.
Electrifying farming’s future
Why go electric? Let’s start with the obvious. Have you seen gas prices lately? The cost of diesel nationwide remains at record highs, up 70% from just a year ago. Diesel fuel powers 75% of all farm equipment including tractors, harvesters and sprayers – all vital to a farming operation. They are doing the same job they were doing a year ago but are now 70% more expensive to operate. These costs are expected to remain high through the summer, with no relief in sight. Factor in the potential for a busy hurricane season that could further disrupt production, and the long-term prognosis is not good.
This is why electrification is more attractive than ever before. With innovations in battery technology, today’s electric alternatives do everything that traditional farming equipment does – but without the high cost of fuel. Farmers can see the immediate economic impact on their farms. Further, with gas prices expected to remain unstable, investing in electric technology stands to pay for itself sooner rather than later.
Transitioning to electric-powered farm machinery not only offers farmers cost-saving solutions but also an opportunity for more sustainable farming practices. Take, for instance, the traditional diesel tractor. Did you know one diesel compact tractor produces roughly 14 times the emissions of the average car? These emissions directly affect the quality of crops, the safety of farm staff and the health of our planet. There is also a growing consumer demand for more sustainable agriculture practices. Replacing a diesel tractor with a zero-emissions electric tractor can help farms kick-start the transition to clean farming.
Ask just about any farmer about his or her top challenges, and labor shortages are likely to be included in that list. The farming industry continues to be hit hard by a lack of available workers. Studies show that between 1950-2000, hired farm hands declined 52%, while self-employed and family farmworkers declined 73%. This labor shortage is attributed to several factors, ranging from stricter immigration policies to a growing lack of interest in agriculture. Farmers under the age of 35 make up just 9% of the industry.
As a result, farmers are being forced to make do with fewer workers, and that is where automation comes into play. From irrigation drones to robots that can seed, plant and harvest to self-driving tractors, automated farm equipment is filling the void left by a shrinking workforce. Automation helps farmers optimize operations, as they can program equipment to conduct specific tasks and operations, and strategically put human workers where they are needed most.
Autonomous operations can also protect workers. Autonomous operations such as spraying prevent workers from having to be in the spray zone and be subjected to potentially harmful chemicals. Autonomous tractors cut the costs of extra passes, enabling farms to get rid of herbicides and use natural non-synthetic pesticides, creating a healthier environment.
Adopting artificial intelligence
As attractive as a fleet of self-driving vehicles and machines roaming the farm unattended may be, the infusion of AI and machine learning (ML) capabilities into these autonomous operations takes them to the next level. AI technology offers a variety of benefits, including:
Safety: For example, an autonomous tractor with AI capabilities can help reduce farming accidents and keep workers out of harm’s way. The AI recognizes when a person or object is in the path of a tractor. It relays that info to the tractor, which will then suspend operations until the path is once again clear. This type of technology works day or night and reduces the potential for human error.
Efficiency: Many automated machines outfitted with AI technology get smarter with each use. They recognize patterns and behaviors and can adjust accordingly. For instance, an autonomous sprayer can take the current wind into consideration and adjust controls so the spray hits its target directly instead of being wasted in the wind. Harvest automation tools are also becoming increasingly popular. AI harvesting tools exist that can, for instance, help strawberry farmers by identifying the ripeness of a strawberry and ensuring they are ready to be harvested.
- Farming in the age of climate change: Climate change is having a global effect on farming operations. Agricultural producers traditionally rely on specific climate conditions. But with rising temperatures, droughts and more, farmers are having to make adjustments on the fly. This is where AI, ML and data analysis can help by providing actionable intelligence in the face of drought and climate change that can be used for increased precision and efficiency in the fields. This technology offers recommendations for planting, applications, farm health and harvesting from its ability to intelligently analyze weather, crop data, historical trends and market statistics.
With the emergence of 21st century cutting-edge technology, farming is entering a cleaner, safer and more efficient era. New innovations in electrification, automation and artificial intelligence are helping farmers solve key challenges such as high fuel prices, labor shortages and the effects of climate change, while boosting productivity and maximizing profitability.
“Work smarter, not harder,” indeed.