The march of new technology pushing the bounds of agriculture is only at a seminal point, despite phenomenal equipment and agronomic advances in the past decade. Hyperbole aside, no facet of agriculture remains untouched as technology integrates farming functions in a tight weave at a remarkably rapid pace.
At the 10th Annual Ag Issues Forum in Phoenix, Ariz., former CNN anchor Frank Sesno moderated a panel of producers detailing emerging technologies in agriculture, and highlighting the need for continued innovation.
Bryan Boll, Crookston, Minn., grows 5,000 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and wheat. Boll also manages a 200 head cow/calf purebred registered Angus herd, and a trucking operation. He was the 2014 recipient of the Bayer Young Farmer Sustainability Award, and speaks about ag tech with authority born from experience running a diverse family operation.
“My phone is my right-hand man on the farm,” Boll describes. Beyond communication with operators and weather checks, he markets 90% of his crops through smartphone technology – a process that goes on whether Boll is in a tractor cab or elsewhere on his land. In addition, he monitors equipment with his smartphone and utilizes GPS trackers with his trucking service. “The technology surrounding my operation, including my smartphone, makes me a better manager and therefore more efficient. Bottom line: It affects me financially in a positive way.”
Beyond money, Boll stresses the increased family time that smartphone technology offers a farmer. “I’m with them, but still able to manage my farm. In the past, I absolutely had to be on-site.”
Matt Rohlik divides his days as the integrated solutions manager for Haug Implement Co., Willmar, Minn., and as a producer of alfalfa, corn, oats, soybeans, and wheat. He also raises cow/calf pairs, feeder cattle and horses. Rohlik has a sharp grasp on the advantages that drones carry across farmland. “Drones have tremendous use in crop scouting and figuring out what’s going on in fields.”
“Right now, when you scout a field, you only see at your height. But looking at fields from far above brings a different perspective. We have an opportunity with drone technology to take a look at our crops – weekly if we really wanted – and adjust fertilizer and water.” However, Rohlik notes that drone use isn’t limited to any particular agriculture area. Liability insurance and safety issues related to grain bin maintenance are significant concerns for growers, but drones can make checks and save the climbing labor. “Also, we can watch cattle with drones and make sure they’re in the pen and accounted for. Drones can also take a look at the livestock and look for significant temperature changes.”
As the CEO of the premier vertical farming operation in the U.S. – Green Sense Farms, Portage, Ind. – Robert Colangelo is breaking new ground and leaving sun behind for LED lights. Colangelo can barely keep pace with demand for indoor-grown Green Sense lettuce, herbs and microgreens. “We grow 25’ in the air, with two climate controlled rooms. We’ve switched from fluorescent to LED light technology and the move was made for climate and efficiency reasons. The red and blue LEDs stimulate photosynthesis far more efficiently.”
Colangelo is currently teaming with the U.S. military on the potential of indoor growing facilities to feed troops. He’s also working with hospitals and universities seeking vertical farming units. “Our farms use high-tech science and we try to mimic nature where we can. We try to take advantage of gravity and common sense.”
Sustainable technologies are steering farmers toward better management on finite ground. “The public wants minimal environmental impact, high quality food, and cheap prices,” Rohlik says. “We’re not going to provide that by doing the same old thing.”