Ag Tech on Deck

Dec 12, 2022

By Allison Jenkins

Vanessa Kummer, pictured here with her husband, Paul, is one of 10 farmers serving on the grower advisory board for Fargo-based Grand Farm, launched in 2019 as a trailblazing research site for emerging technology and best practices in modern agriculture.

Imagine a farm where autonomous equipment runs itself 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Where fields are managed by the inch, not the acre. Where plants transmit stress signals to growers. Where farmers generate their own fuel and electricity. Where traceability of livestock and grain happens automatically. Where sustainability is not just a buzzword.

This farm of the future isn’t here yet, but it’s within reach. In fact, all of these concepts have moved past the point of possibility into the realm of reality. They are only a few examples of the ways scientists, agribusinesses, universities, equipment manufacturers, tech companies and others are working to solve the complex agricultural challenges of today—so producers won’t have to face them tomorrow.

That’s the hope of Vanessa Kummer, who has farmed with her husband, Paul, for the past 46 years in Colfax, North Dakota, raising soybeans, corn, wheat and sugar beets along with some barley and alfalfa. As they watch their son, Blaine, take over their family operation, the Kummers know it will look nothing like the farm they started with in the mid-1970s.

“We are just hoping that as it moves into the future, farming gets easier for the next generation,” Vanessa Kummer says. “We’ve always tried to be on the cutting edge and keep track of innovations. Blaine takes that same approach and has been ready to accept and adopt new technologies. I think he will continue to do that. There’s no reason to work harder instead of smarter.”

Kummer has a unique vantage point to witness advancements in the pipeline that may transform agriculture as she and her family know it. She’s one of 10 farmers serving on the grower advisory board for Fargo-based Grand Farm, launched in 2019 as a trailblazing research site for emerging technology and best practices in modern agriculture.

“It’s very intriguing to see the things they have already started to look at and test,” she says. “And having a farm advisory board is important because they need our input on whether the ideas are usable or not.”

Grand Farm has quickly gained traction and funding, including a sizable investment from Microsoft. Currently, the farm’s team is working with 55 partners on some 320 projects, ranging from autonomous farm equipment and unmanned aerial systems to plant genetics and data science.

It will soon expand from its original 40-acre site to a state-of-the-art “Innovation Facility” on 140 acres near Casselton, North Dakota, with groundbreaking planned this fall. The campus will combine an educational center that can host events as well as test plots for research and demonstrations.

“When we first pitched the concept of the Grand Farm, we put together a big, audacious goal—to create the first fully autonomous farm by the year 2025,” says Grand Farm Director Brian Carroll. “Once we got into it, we realized the technology is actually out there. It’s just a matter of proving it, making it scalable and keeping it economical for farmers. So, autonomy simply became a component of what we’re trying to do, which is to advance the whole agricultural supply chain from the field to the consumer.”

Carroll said work at the Grand Farm addresses critical agricultural challenges such as feeding the growing population, alleviating the labor shortage and improving stewardship, among others. These are familiar and worrisome problems for producers and the impetus for research and development efforts at all levels of the industry, from academia to agribusiness.

“If we’re going to feed nearly 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, it’s going to take a big network of people who are passionate around that goal,” Carroll says. “We only have so many growing cycles to become much more efficient and effective, so we’re going to have to speed that up through innovation and rapid feedback. Technology is going to help get us there.”

Tech takes over tasks

Technology is taking over the farm, and other autonomous systems aren’t far behind. Pictured here is a driverless John Deere tractor, which is expected to hit the market this fall. Photo credit: John Deere

Automation is on the cusp of being an important part of the solution. Once the stuff of science fiction, driverless tractors are already hitting the marketplace, while other autonomous farm equipment isn’t far behind.

For example, John Deere expects to begin selling its first self-operating tractor this fall, and by 2030, the company plans to have a fully autonomous cropping system from planting to harvest. Precision agriculture company Raven already has introduced autonomous grain cart technology and is working on tillage, planting, hay and forage applications. These systems use cameras, GPS, radar and artificial intelligence (AI) to process data and detect obstacles.

“We have a shortage of workers available, and that’s been an issue for a while,” Kummer says. “If you could replace a person or two by having autonomous tractors or equipment, I think that could be very valuable. I would give up my place in a tractor or combine any day of the week!”

Site-specific autonomy is a little more futuristic, but a research team from North Dakota State University—one of Grand Farm’s partners—has successfully demonstrated a “weedbot” that uses AI to sense and spot-spray weeds. Although this technology is still in the proof-of-concept phase, the researchers envision similar robotic systems to help producers scout crops, detect disease and reduce labor-intensive work.

Drone technology also is poised for a boom in farm usage. Agricultural drones are the fastest-growing segment of the non-military market, expected to generate 100,000 jobs in the U.S. and $82 billion in economic activity during the next decade, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report. Currently, unmanned aerial systems conduct imaging, monitoring and small-scale spraying, fertilizing and seeding tasks, but rapid innovation foreshadows tremendous potential for uses not yet imagined.

Plant breeding gets more precise

While drones and autonomous vehicles often generate “gee-whiz” excitement, innovations in plant genetics also will shape the future of farming.

North Dakota State University, Dr. Xin (Rex) Sun demonstrates a weedbot at Grand Farm during the 2022 Autonomous Nation Conference. Photo Credit: Grand Farms

Today’s plant breeding involves sophisticated technologies such as gene editing, which accelerates more predictable crop improvement. This precision breeding enables scientists to make targeted changes within a plant’s DNA to enhance crop performance and introduce desirable traits, such as elite soybean varieties with specific oil compositions, to meet various end-use targets.

It should come as no surprise that the industry’s leading crop science companies are at the forefront of such technology. Bayer’s research and development teams, for example, are exploring the application of gene editing in the development of seed and microbial products with a focus on plant architecture, disease resistance, stress tolerance, and plant growth and development across the company’s row-crop portfolio.

In 2020, Bayer opened its first fully automated greenhouse in Arizona. The indoor, climate-controlled facility allows agronomists to have multiple growing seasons each year and uses advancements in proprietary seed chipping, advanced marker technology, automation and data science to speed new product development.

“We tend to take plant genetics for granted because they have improved so much in the past 50 years, but I think there’s still room for more improvement,” says Tim Hammerich, host of the “Future of Agriculture” podcast. “Maybe that’s genetically modified; maybe it’s not. Regardless, I believe we will continue to unlock new possibilities and deliver those genetics in a more precise way.”

To illustrate, Hammerich cited one recent podcast subject, InnerPlant Inc., based in Davis, California, which is developing genetically engineered crops that can actually “talk” to growers by emitting signals when they are stressed. InnerPlant’s sensing and satellite technologies detect these signals and alert growers. The company plans to launch commercially with a soybean product in 2024.

Tim Hammerich, host of Future of Agriculture podcast.

Data drives decisions

Just as advances in plant breeding are limitless, so are opportunities for data analytics. Technology already allows unprecedented visibility into farming operations, collecting layer upon layer of data. As satellite imagery, sensing technology and agronomic models improve, the ability to deliver precise knowledge of what’s happening in specific areas improves as well.

For example, the Israeli company Phytech, which is collaborating with Syngenta, has developed a monitoring system with continuous sensors for plant growth, soil moisture and microclimate. The data generated from the system is then accessible in real time, allowing growers to take action if needed.

Data can even allow farmers to play a role in improving supply chain management. At Grand Farm, Carroll said one of his favorite projects is HarvestTrace, which is evaluating technology that can track soybeans from field to food. The program would harness blockchain concepts to provide production data to the consumer and pass value back to the grower.

“What really gets me excited is that this technology can incentivize the grower to manage the crop in a certain way,” Carroll said. “Our farmers already use the best practices, and to be able to prove and verify those practices could be a real high-value addition for growers.”

Agriculture meets the future

Field signage for the HarvestTrace project, which is evaluating technology that can track soybeans from field to food.

When it comes to imagining the farm of the future, visions vary. Carroll sees an operation that’s more diversified and self-contained with on-farm capabilities for generating inputs such as energy and fertilizer. Kummer says she expects autonomous equipment to become important—but not omnipotent. She’s more excited about advances in plant genetics that could lead to more drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, nutrient-efficient crops. Hammerich thinks the future will bring a fusion of factors, with a focus on more biological diversity.

“I believe we’re headed for a combination of better plant breeding, improved understanding of the soil and advances in precision agriculture,” Hammerich says. “Our ability to understand down to each square inch of what the crop needs is critical, and then we have to deliver those needs at the right place, right time and right amount.”

The sheer volume of innovation in the ag space right now may be overwhelming, but Kummer said choosing what to try on the farm boils down to a simple, old-fashioned formula: Does the technology truly pencil out?

“Amazing things are coming. It’s just a matter of deciding what’s worthwhile and what’s not,” she says. “It may be something that seems really cool and exciting, but cost-effectiveness must be part of the decision. Does it make economic sense? Farmers still have to be profitable.”

There’s another truth at play in this discussion. No matter how high-tech farming becomes, it’s still powered by people. Carroll said he believes the innovative work happening at Grand Farm and other places can help attract subsequent generations to the industry.

“There’s a bunch of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders right now who cannot imagine a career in agriculture. But if they look at it through the lens of technology, science and business, we have the opportunity to bring them in,” Carroll says. “Think about it. Agriculture is one industry that will always be in place. We will always need a food system, and the efficiency of what we do is only going to get more important in the future.”