When people think of “farmers,” they probably picture the same mental image: an overall-clad person with a pitchfork, tending to a red hay barn along with a few cows, chickens, and crops. Most likely, they aren’t thinking of “robots, temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images, and GPS technology.” But that’s exactly how the USDA describes agriculture, along with the technology agriculture employs. Farming methods today are far more advanced than we tend to imagine. And as technology progresses, agriculture is focused on more than creating quality products; technology enables farming to be more efficient, sustainable, and safer.
It’s easy to see why technology is important to agriculture. Modern agricultural technology (or AgTech) helps farmers produce more crops, use fewer resources, and do their jobs better. But it’s also easy to see the drawbacks of these rapid technological advances. Soil degradation, chemical pollution, decreasing biodiversity, and an increasing strain on our ecosystems are all concerns for large-scale farm operations. Many struggles for 21st century farming link back to rising demands: the world needs more food, at faster paces and with cheaper costs—and we’re using technology to close that demand-supply gap.
Some experts warn our current farming methods may come at a price humanity cannot pay; a study by the University of Washington concluded that “the unintended environmental consequences of intensive agricultural practices and inputs are varied and potentially severe.” While there are certainly challenges ahead, the future of farming is primed to address these problems—especially as it partners with other industries. Cross-collaborating has already brought great results, some of which we’ll share in this article.
AgTech is vital for today’s agricultural methods; that much is undeniable. But as we look to the future, agriculture production must strike a challenging balance: feeding the world’s population, while protecting the world’s resources. So, as technology expands what is possible in agriculture, how can our thinking expand alongside it?
The answer, ironically, is also the root cause: innovation. AgTech must evolve and expand its methods by partnering with other industries, such as software and hardtech. And future AgTech cannot simply focus on productivity, but also sustainability—that is, sustainability of our practices, technologies, and environmental impact. We’re already seeing that shift happen, with real-world examples of how different industries can work together. And this is why, when the leaders of agriculture gather at the next AgTech conference, cross-sector innovation will be the center of attention.
How Has Technology Changed Farming?
The way we farm around the world is far different now than it was centuries ago, or even decades ago. Much of that change is due to increased efficiency, improved growing methods, and increased control over plant and animal genetics—all made possible through technological innovation in agriculture.
- Irrigation has been around for millennia, but it progressed dramatically in the last 200 years. Most of this evolution followed the invention of sprinkler systems, which was first patented in 1898 by Charles Skinner (known then as the “Skinner System”). In the following century, the amount of irrigated land worldwide doubled, according to National Geographic.
- Heavy machinery like tractors provided an efficient alternative for traditional beasts of burden. When the use of tractors finally overtook horses in the mid-1940s, farmers could work more land with less people—and significantly less horses and mules. This is especially important because as of 1910, horses and mules consumed over 20 percent of the food they helped farmers grow.
- Genetic engineering helps farmers produce more consistent yields with less loss. A common example is the use of the Bt gene in corn, which makes corn produce proteins that are toxic to insects. Following its introduction to U.S. crops in 1996, Bt-corn now makes up an overwhelming majority of the United States corn population—over 90 percent, as of 2018.
That’s just a few of the ways technology has shaped agricultural practices. But such big advancements are not solely a thing of the past. Digital agriculture projects, for example, aim to optimize data collection through cloud computing technology. Genetic engineering continues to bring out the most desired qualities in crops. And leaders in the autonomous farming sector promise a future where self-driving tractors, seed-planting robots, and soil-sampling drones augment AgTech even further.
All of these advancements have driven greater efficiency and higher productivity. But what has the impact of said changes been, both good and bad?
How Technology Impacts Agriculture—Positively and Negatively
Cost-benefit ratio is crucial to understanding AgTech, or any other technology. Technology helps us achieve our desired benefits with fewer costs. With that, though, comes the debate of whether technology is always helpful to humanity, or if it can be pushed too far. As the old saying goes, “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”
So, what are the benefits and costs of AgTech? And is that ratio something we can live with—literally?
What Are the Positive Impacts of Agricultural Technology?
AgTech empowers the industry to do more, with less, on a broader scale than ever before. This is due to:
- Higher productivity, with more consistent yields
- Improved monitoring methods, leading to safer food products
- Decreasing need for fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals
- Increasing support for a dwindling workforce of farmers
- More efficient usage of water and other natural resources
What Are Some Negative Impacts of Technology in Agriculture?
The benefits of technology in agriculture are far-ranging. But with those benefits came increasing consumer demand and pressure to produce more with less. This resulted in several negative outcomes:
- Decreasing biodiversity from monocropping, which damages ecosystems
- Increasing volumes of chemical pollution, with environmental domino effects
- Far less consumer clarity on where food comes from and how it’s grown
- Rising maintenance & machinery costs, which affects consumer prices
- An industry that is more resistant to change and less resistant to crisis
Ironically, many of the negative effects of agriculture come from technology meant to improve it. What’s worse, many farmers feel so pressured to produce that they are often reluctant to adopt new technologies or practices, even if they might prove beneficial. After all, if a farmer tries something new and it fails, they grow no food, and they cannot make a living.
The positive and negative impacts of agriculture on the environment are far more complex than can be addressed in a single article. But one thing we can address is how farming is innovating its way to a brighter future for both farmers and consumers. And with the support of AgTech innovation, modern agriculture will approach that brighter future at a much faster pace—especially if it continues to collaborate with other industries. Cross-sector events such as the Rally Innovation Conference will be vital moving forward, as they help create space for new ideas and stronger industry partnerships. They’ll also be a platform for great innovators, like the family of farmers in the following section.
Starkey Farms: A Case Study of Agricultural Innovation
In Brownsburg, IN, a seventh-generation farm is showing how farming methods can be both sustainable and profitable. With over 2500 acres of farmland, Starkey Farms states that their “farming practices prioritize conservation and maximal yields…[they] believe soil and water quality can be improved through [their] responsible farming methods.” And Starkey Farms achieves these improvements with tangible results to back up their claims, all while maintaining fruitful yields.
Mike Starkey, who runs Starkey Farms with his nephew Jeff, shared how their path sustainable farming not just to help the environment, but cut down on costs. In addition to no-till methods, their farms have extensive soil health practices, such as cover crops and controlled nutrient application. As a result, their farmland retains fertilizer and water at a much higher rate, drastically reducing their needs for additives, manpower, machinery, or irrigation.
Adopting these changes made Starkey Farms more sustainable, both environmentally and financially. In addition to cutting costs, their farming practices have also drastically reduced erosion, chemical runoff, and other common drawbacks to large-scale farming operations. But possibly the most impressive quality is their soil’s ability to filter water; a university study of Starkey Farms showed that water leaves their land cleaner than when it entered.
In addition to farming, Mike Starkey now passes on his learnings to other farmers, via conferences, workshops, tours, and a variety of other events. He is a firm advocate of sharing knowledge between experts, for the betterment of all. He also believes that agriculture as a whole will eventually make the same changes his farm made—and out of necessity.
Takeaways From Starkey Farms
What concepts can AgTech—and agriculture as a whole—use from Starkey Farms? Here are a few:
- Sustainability Is Profitability | Oftentimes, modern agriculture may seem like it has to choose between profit margins and conservation. But, operations like Starkey Farms illustrate that food production can be sustainable in more ways than one, with the proper investment. For them, sustainability actually proved more profitable, and by a large margin.
- Change Is Growth | One concept that comes up in agriculture is resistance to change, particularly for farming methods. The built-in skepticism is natural, considering the pressure on farmers to produce the world’s food. However, experts like Starkey believe that adapting is not only beneficial, but vital to the survival of farming operations. When farmers get the space to learn from other industry professionals firsthand, incorporating change is much easier.
- Collaboration Is Key | While agriculture does need to change, it also needs the space to do it. And in the various interviews he’s given, Mike Starkey has repeatedly highlighted the importance of passing down knowledge firsthand—from farmer to farmer. Creating space for professionals to share ideas, learn from each other, and adapt new methods is a crucial piece of that—whether it’s a workshop, tour, or a conference hall. And it doesn’t have to be just between farmers; agriculture could find solutions in other industries with entirely different skill sets.
One thing to keep in mind is that most of the changes at Starkey Farms—equipment modifications, cover crops, and resource allocation—were relatively low-tech. What would it look like for modern AgTech solutions to support farmers like Mike Starkey? The intersection between sustainability and technology is a place where incredible possibilities lie: a world where we can both feed people and the planet.
What is an example of a way a farm could apply new technology to improve sustainability? There are many examples to look at, many of which are already in use. Hydroponics and aeroponics can cut down dramatically on water usage. Farm management software can use precision agriculture to minimize resource consumption. And—perhaps most importantly—agriculture and AgTech can adapt methods from entirely different industries. As such, spaces for cross-sector collaboration are of the essence.
Cross-Collaboration in AgTech
Cross-sector thinking is already a huge part of modern agriculture. Farmers are more than crop cultivators—they’re businesspeople, biologists, chemists, and even machinists. Therefore, when they convene with professionals from other fields, they benefit greatly, likely more than most industry professionals. But collaboration doesn’t just benefit industry professionals; it benefits consumers too.
- Blockchain technology (like that used in cryptocurrency) can be used to trace ingredients from farm to table, giving consumers a clear picture of what they’re eating and where it comes from.
- 3D printers are able to repair machinery, create animal prosthetics, and even print food.
- Cloud computing technology helps farmers observe more land, and in further detail.
A bright new era of AgTech lies just over the horizon. And with cross-sector innovation steering the ship, we’ll meet that goal much faster.
What Is the Future of Agtech? Find Out at Rally
What will agriculture be like in 2050? We may not know the answer yet, but chances are we will be a lot closer after this year’s Rally Innovation Conference. Mark your calendars for August 29-31, 2023, because that’s when AgTech industry experts will gather with four other major industries in Indianapolis, IN to discover the next big ideas, together. Rally is a space where people like Mike Starkey can come together with leaders in software, medicine, and advanced manufacturing to accelerate their industries’ evolution.
Here are some of the highlights you can expect from Rally this year:
- Prize pitch competitions where startups in various industries can win up to $1 million cash investment
- Networking sessions for inventors seeking startups and entrepreneurs seeking funding
- Six different “innovation studios” of workshops and learning sessions for various industries