FarmLife Five: Ag Augury

From harvesting robots to a new “supercharged” strain of rice, we offer a sampling of predictions for what’s on the horizon.

Radical Robots: Stavros G. Vougioukas, a U.C. Davis a biological and agricultural engineering professor, is working to make robotics for harvesting specialty crops one of ag’s next big breakthroughs. He notes that “the holy grail [of] fully automatic or robotic harvesting” could soon be in reach, due in part to improvements in technologies such as video sensors.

Source: Interview with Stavros G. Vougioukas, University of California, Associate Professor, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering

Take Action: “There’s a lot of data available,” says Vougioukas, coming from such sources as moisture sensors and drones. But, he continues, “What is not out there is how you can turn those images and those data into actions.” So, the next frontier will be staked by companies that turn that data into “actionable information.”

Source: Interview with Stavros G. Vougioukas, University of California, Associate Professor, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering

Data Control: Concerned about the protection of data generated on their farms, producers have begun to limit how others use it. On the other hand, some are beginning to share by adding anonymized data to a pool, allowing a broader measure of information to be studied, but for a price.

Source: Farmobile and Farmers Business Network 

Light ’Em Up: Light-emitting diodes, with their spectra precisely tuned to emit light optimal for photosynthesis, are already in use. However, they are expected to get even more duty as farming is expected to move into non-traditional locales, some of which will receive little (even no) sunlight.

Sources: USDA: LED Lighting Improves Sustainability for Specialty-Crop Producers

Supercharged Rice: The development of C4 rice is considered to be another holy grail just beyond our grasp. Through more efficient photosynthesis, this strain of grain could increase yields of the crop by another 50%, helping farmers feed a growing global population.

Source: International Rice Research Institute



Five Predictions from the Past

Check out which presaged the future of farming and which missed the mark.

From Time: “7 of the Craziest Predictions for the Future, From the Past”

“Frogmen will live in undersea bunkers and tend to kelp farms. One way to address food shortages of the future, according to the RAND Corp. in 1966: eat more kelp. The think tank imagined that ‘Huge fields of kelp and other kinds of seaweed will be tended by undersea farmers—frogmen who will live for months at a time in submerged bunkhouses.’ The kelp, rich in protein, would then be ground into a powder which ‘could be regenerated chemically to taste like anything from steak to bourbon.’”

Time editor’s note: “Though seaweed extracts are commonly used as additives today, they’ve yet to supplant the rest of our food supply. And so far, their cultivators still live on dry ground.”

“Tomatoes will be square. ‘Another phenomenon in the not too distant future,” envisioned the Research and Development Chief at Deere & Co., ‘is square tomatoes, which, after all, could be more easily packaged by machine—and fit better in sandwiches.’

Time editor’s note: “The mechanization of agriculture during the middle decades of the 20th century drastically changed the face of farming. Some, observed former Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, believed the automation would ‘chill the ageless intimacy between man and his land.’ Others saw nothing but progress in the increased production modern machinery afforded. Still others saw square tomatoes.”

From U.S. News: ‘The Wondrous World of 1990’: A Look at Past Predictions of the Future

“More land in the U.S. will be farmed—including all of the 55 million acres that have been taken out of production in recent years, according to farm experts. Size of the farm will expand. Huge farm corporations will handle thousands of acres. The small farmer will fade out.”

FarmLife editor’s note: The U.S. News story was published in 1967. According to the World Bank, in 1961 some 48.9% of U.S. land was being farmed; in 2013 that total had fallen to 44.3%. However, the average size of a farm did increase from about 303 acres in 1960 to 434 in 2012.

“By year 2000, there will be only 1 million farmers in America—as against 3.5 million today.”

FarmLife editor’s note: According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were slightly more than 2.1 million principal farm operators in 2012.

“Feeding 7 billion mouths by year 2000 presents a challenge. Right now world population is only half that size.”

FarmLife editor’s note: In 2000, the total word population was slightly less than 6.1 billion. It’s expected to grow, however to almost 9.4 billion by 2050.