Tomorrow's farm technology will make today's look as outdated as steam-powered traction engines seem today. The stage is being set for an unprecedented new generation of farming driven by ever-greater levels of precision, relevancy and control. Many farmers of tomorrow will be techno-geek agrarians packing handhelds and data readers to monitor far more than yields, costs and moisture content.
As with all industries, there are many microforces driving the changes ahead. But viewing them through the lens of these three overarching trends helps us grasp the interwoven nature of these often-competing drivers.
Trend No. 1—Precision. Seed technology has boosted productivity to the order of 1 to 3,200 or more.
Accurate GPS systems and auto-steer already enable planting near-perfect patterns and tailoring of inputs to field conditions. Emerging tech companies such as the Denver-based Moedus and their LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners with accuracy to 1 mm have the potential to radically improve GPS accuracy and add 3D-imaging characteristics to the data.
With this level of precision already in existence, some find it hard to believe we are striving for even greater precision. However, the stage is being set for farming to become "explosively precise."
Smart Dust. The idea of smart dust was introduced by Kristofer S. J. Pister at the University of California in 2001. This radiofrequency-powered network of tiny wireless microelectromechanical systems includes sensors and monitoring devices that can detect anything from moisture to temperature, vibrations, chemical composition, etc.
With the same equipment used to sow seeds, smart dust will be "planted" into the soil to begin the monitoring process. Farms imbedded with smart dust will essentially be glowing with real-time information.
Going further, by employing everything from magnetic fields to sound waves and signal frequencies, scientists seek to allow farmers to experiment with microcontrols to alter plant characteristics, ward off pests and enhance crop production.
Trend No. 2—Relevancy. Can better food create better people? Will a better food supply lead to healthier, stronger, smarter people?
These are exactly the type of questions driving the relevancy issue. How can we make the food we eat sync up with our own unique metabolism? In short, how do we make food more relevant?
Over time, science will develop real-time sensors in our bodies that can read everything from the fluctuation of brainwaves to microchanges in heartbeats, digestive processes and variations in perspiration rates. Such monitoring will translate into healthier food choices and, more importantly, choices tailored specifically to an individual's needs.
Gaining an ability to read and monitor a person's metabolic reaction to the food eaten will allow farmers to serve tiny niche demands of consumers with great precision.
Farmers will become expert at producing "jacked-in" food stocks with countless variations, managed through computerized processes designed to manipulate the end results. Controls will be exercised along a broad spectrum, from environmental conditions such as light, water and oxygen levels in the air to genetic manipulation according to approved safety guidelines.
The entire demand-driven supply chain will be automated and wired to the needs of the end user.
The regulatory system for insuring ultrasafe food supplies will be constantly monitored through automated data feeds at each step of the supply chain.
Trend No. 3—Control. Every business is more easily managed with better control of the variables. Farming is an industry fraught with too many variables, from weather to pests to soil, not to mention those beyond the farm gate, such as transportation and processing.
Silo Farming. The precision we use to monitor consumer demand, coupled with the increasing need to control variables, will begin the transition to ultraprecise farming operations in highly controlled environments. Today's surface farming is both imprecise and subject to extreme external influences, making it less than ideal to supply the consumer marketplace of the future.
Farming in the future will go vertical. Several projects, such as Dickson Despommier's at Columbia University, are in various conceptual and experimental stages.
The concept I envision would create both below-surface and above-surface silos with either layered or honeycomb-lined walls filled with rich topsoil to convert a small surface area on land into a much larger surface area on the walls of the silos.
A robotic arm will travel up and down a central shaft, performing all necessary tasks.
Sunlight will be captured through solar panels, power through wind, and water through an ongoing evaporation system that extracts moisture from the air. Such "farms" can be constructed in the most unforgiving places on the planet. This, coupled with the fact that it creates a year-round farming operation on greatly expanded surface area, has the ability to increase the Earth's ability to produce food by a thousandfold.
As we examine the trends of precision, relevance and control, the future begins to come into focus. Next-generation farm operations will experience unprecedented new levels of opportunity, making future agribusiness professionals some of the most highly skilled people on earth and the envy of the executive class.
Farming is about to become the coolest profession on earth.
Editor's note: As we examine ways to manage margins in the year ahead, as well as policy changes in the wind, it seems appropriate to look at longer-term trends that also will influence your business in the future.
Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute in Louisville, Colo., and currently Google's top-rated futurist speaker. He has been called the Father of Invention and the Dean of Futurists. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Frey spent 15 years as an engineer and designer at IBM, where he received more than 270 awards, exceeding any other IBM engineer. He is also a past member of the Triple Nine Society, a high-IQ group (99.9th percentile).
Frey can be reached at email@example.com or (303) 666-4133. —Linda H. Smith
Top Producer, December 2009