Riding the Next Wave of On-Farm Technology

February 26, 2014 10:49 AM
Riding the Next Wave of On-Farm Technology

Lowell Catlett, New Mexico State University economist and futurist, goes to Mars and back to look at the high-tech tools coming soon to farming.

The next big farming innovations might not even come from the ag industry. Instead, they may come from medical advancements or smartphone innovations, says Lowell Catlett, New Mexico State University economist and futurist. Some are not even of this earth, he adds.

For example, remote sensor technology installed on the Mars rover Curiosity employs laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), a means to extract chemical analysis from rocks and minerals on the Red Planet. Back on earth, one of Catlett’s NMSU colleagues is exploring potential uses for LIBS in several industries, including agriculture.

"Get ready to ramp up prescription agriculture," Catlett says. That’s because such technology could very well usher in a new autonomous means of easy and instant soil sampling.

In fact, get ready to ramp up a lot of new technologies coming soon to the farm, he says. A new wave of on-farm technology is set to crest over the next several years. The ideas coming from the medical community alone should be enough to get any tech-minded farmer excited about the future of farming, Catlett says.

For example, fingerprint analysis taken on your smartphone several times a day will soon be a common tool for cardiologists to get exponentially more consistent data from their patients and offer better preventive healthcare, he says.

"I go to the cardiologist once a year," he says. "What’s better — one data point a year, or five a day?"

Extrapolated to the agriculture industry, this technology could be harnessed to monitor livestock or even plants for a level of DIY diagnostics unheard of today, Catlett says.

"No more guessing," he says. "Get ready for a revolution."

Extrapolation is the simple secret to envisioning the future, says Catlett, who doesn’t even refer to himself a futurist ("I let other people use that term"). Rather, he just looks at current trends and tries to imagine the potential future ramifications. Technology can be disruptive in both good and bad ways, and farmers should adapt to new technologies that show value.

In the end, Catlett says farmers need to appreciate how they got to where they are now, but at the same time they shouldn’t be afraid of change, he told attendees at the Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum in San Antonio ahead of Commodity Classic. He says he is encouraged when he sees farmers with that attitude.

Change has driven incredible success stories, Catlett says, citing Amazon as an example. In its humble beginnings, Amazon sold books online. But founder Jeff Bezos foresaw the value of eBooks, so he moved to that forefront immediately. Amazon has since made attempts to live up to its nickname as "the everything store" by selling everything from car parts to groceries to luggage — you name it.

Today, the Internet retailer sells more merchandise than its 12 next biggest competitors combined.

"[Bezos] built the model and then started tearing it down immediately," Catlett says. "Likewise, farmers should be prepared if they have to change. One of the best good core values is to think positively about the future."

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