Why trying to predict the future of farming can be useful
Change is inevitable, and agriculture isn’t immune. For example, think back 12 years and consider how much farming has changed even in that short time span. New machines, new technologies, new seeds and new traits have altered the farming landscape.
Even cultural shifts have unfolded in the past decade that directly affect agriculture. Consumers weren’t demanding the level of transparency that they are now. Today, you can hear the steady hum from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere online.
Now, consider for a moment what farming might look like in 2025? The question is fun to ponder, but it also has serious implications. If change is inevitable, then those who quickly adapt will have the best shot at success.
Here are a few things that futurists and other forward thinkers suggest might come to pass by the year 2025.
New competition. Commodity futures have enjoyed historically high prices for the past few years. Because of that, Mark Gold, managing partner with Top Third Ag Marketing, has been watching budding production regions overseas with great interest.
"The high commodity prices are waking up and developing new production areas," he says. "Once infrastructure is built, it doesn’t go away."
Rich Kottemeyer, global head of agriculture at Accenture, also looks globally when he considers the future of farming.
"We have to start with the fact that agriculture is fundamentally global," he says. "You have to consider what the globe is going to look like. So in 2025, we’re at 8 billion people and moving from a regional consumption model to a global one."
Kottemeyer says it comes down to what he calls "share of gut."
"What’s going into the gut of these extra 1 billion people?" he asks. "That’s the most important question we have to be able to answer."
The bottom line is we need to produce more food. Because of this, Kottemeyer says, biotechnology will proliferate, trade will become more globalized and the farm itself will more closely model manufacturing plants.
"Manufacturing plants have done a far better job than farmers in general in collecting, organizing and analyzing data," he says. "It’s time for the farm to become a true manufacturing plant."
Robots and tractor trends. Factories in other industries are driven by efficiency and autonomy that farms would be wise to emulate, says ag futurist Bob Treadway. A big component will be major integration of robotics.
"While it may be slow to come in the early part of the next 10 years, I expect acceleration of robotics in the latter half of the next decade," he says. "Not all farms will be totally robotic, but all farms will have significant robotic presence."
Robotics could reverse a 50-year trend of higher horsepower tractors, says Scott Shearer, who chairs the Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department at The Ohio State University. This has everything to do with reducing the yield limits that are currently caused by compaction, he explains. "With smaller horsepower, you reduce your liability and the compaction penalty."
Another equipment trend on the verge of becoming a reality is multi-hybrid planters. So far, only Raven Industries is promoting its prototype, but others are rumored to be in development. Farmers have already set up management zones to manage fertility and other inputs. Multi-hybrid planters will allow even more targeted hybrid and variety selection.
Home-grown energy. Food isn’t the only thing that farmers of the future will be growing. Increasingly, they will be able to produce their own electricity and biofuel.
California dairy producer Dino Giacomazzi says farmers and ranchers can start this process by rethinking how they can turn some of their current byproducts into more profitable assets.
"Dairy manure will no longer be viewed as a nuisance but as a product of value—in energy production and as a fertilizer—and a source of revenue," he says. "It will be transformed from a liability into a profit center."
Row-crop farmers will have just as many opportunities to make their own fertilizer, even if they lack the fecal resources of dairy producers. The farming landscape a decade from now could be dotted with small-scale fertilizer converters that use plant matter or even grab nitrogen out of the air. As the price of solar panels continues to decline, farmers will realize a "tipping point" where it becomes profitable to install panels on the roofs of barns, grain bins and other structures to harness the sunlight for on-farm energy needs.
Then there’s a "Holy Grail" of corn breeding—researchers are still trying to develop a hybrid that could fix its own nitrogen. Such a development would certainly be a game-changer.
Whatever the future might hold, it seems to favor volatility—from wild weather swings to roller-coaster commodity prices. But Treadway insists this is a positive. After all, volatility ultimately strengthens the farmer, he says.
"The long-term trend to higher volatility will make the farm and farmer a decade from now smarter, more flexible, better on strategy and better protected from danger," he says.
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeing is Believing
Talking about what tomorrow’s farm will look like is great—but seeing is believing. Coming soon, Ag Web will debut an exclusive interactive website to explore how future trends and technologies might shape a farming operation. The website will allow visitors to explore seven distinct areas on the virtual farm:
- Mahine Shop
- Grain bins
- Beef range
Each section will include multimedia information about emerging and future farm technologies, including videos and conceptual art. Get ready to tour the future this fall.
Sometimes, the future is closer than you think. To learn more about five futuristic-feeling technologies that are available on the farm right now, visit www.FarmJournal.com/farm_of_the_future
- September 2013