While this may fly contrary to what many people outside of the industry think of the occupation, agriculture has consistently proven to be among the most innovative industries. Part of this is because farming is arguably the oldest industry in human history, depending on where you rank hunting and gathering. Either way, the stark difference between the rudimentary hand-crafted rows of Jordanian fig trees more than 11,000 years ago and today’s automated John Deere tractors is impressive nonetheless.
As the non-farmers of the world attempt to re-educate themselves on how today’s agricultural sector differs from the mid-20th century, the question remains: With all this new technology, how is the actual farming process different? And more importantly, how have farmers had to modernize along with their equipment?
One of the larger misconceptions is that farmers still do 100% of the job with their two hands.
Although modern farming is still one of the furthest things from a desk job, there are now countless machines that make traipsing through hundreds of acres every day a less grueling experience than it was in the past.
A spectrum of devices is available depending on the farm’s financial status. Still, it’s not uncommon for many of them to have at least a few newer gadgets like high-capability fertilizer equipment, autonomous tractors, and small camera-mount drones.
One thing about the present that is abundantly clear is the increased productivity from a human labor standpoint. A single farmer can now successfully manage hundreds of acres on his own with the right tools, something that would never have been possible even a few years ago.
Beyond physical machines, the single most significant generation change for agriculture is the influx of measurable data. The already mentioned aerial drones are often equipped with cameras that go beyond our standard view with infrared and hyperspectral imaging. They can also do the farm work themselves, like eastern Washington farmer Andrew Nelson’s DJI Agras T16 aerial sprayer drone, which targets weeds with much-improved efficiency. “It has high enough resolution it can see if there’s one plant alive,” says Nelson. He also mentions the variable spray feature allows him to use chemicals with 40% greater efficiency.
After that, all sorts of sensors can be placed on nearly everything, including those that measure wind and rain, humidity, soil moisture, and temperature, as well as those ever-important carbon levels.
Still, Nelson isn’t sure he prefers the present to the past. “It’s not better. It’s just different, farms have had to grow so much over the years, and we have more constraints on our labor now than we used to,” he says.
Effectively wading through the endless river of data is still going to take some time before the industry gets properly caught up. For now, it’s all about distilling the noisy numbers in an easily manageable direction. “It is prescriptive analytics,” says Marc Arnusch, who owns a family farm out in Colorado. “Data that will tell you, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to be getting some stripe rust here pretty soon; you might want to think about spraying.’”