Imagine this day: Just before you retire for the evening, you head to the office and fire up your laptop. You push a series of buttons that actives an autonomous set of vehicles in field no. 47, a half mile down the road. A cab-less harvester wakes up and starts chewing through a field of corn. As it moves it ‘talks’ to a self-propelled grain cart, which begins transferring loads of grain back and forth between the combine and nearby semi-truck. Driven by GPS, no lights are needed. No humans, either. Passersby hear the gently hum of engines but see little else.
The farmer puts on his virtual reality goggles and views the scene from a nearby hovering drone. Satisfied all is well, he goes to bed. The field will be finished by morning. The self-driven truck will be waiting for him at the grain complex.
When will it happen? Five years, ten? The technology already exists.
Autonomous vehicles will be the next disruptor in ag, but by no means the last. Sensor technology will allow smart sprayers to identify and kill only weeds, saving money and the environment. Drones will identify pest problems and drop loads of beneficial insects to manage infestations. We’re already seeing a soil health revolution as farmers begin to realize how no-till, cover crops and better biology can reduce costs and weather-proof their lands.
Tomorrow’s farmer will need a different set of skills and insights if they expect success. Here are three:
Of all the skills needed by tomorrow’s farmer, technology adoption is the ‘here and now.’ It’s especially important as young farmers move into management and rapidly expand their business. Data-driven tech services can help farmers with logistics, people management and marketing, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“If anyone thinks ag will be the same in 20 years they have their head in the sand,” says Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer at Alltech, a global biotech and animal nutrition company. He believes eight technologies will transform ag, from food to fork: robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, sensors, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, and the Internet of Things.
The farmer of today will become an ag technologist in the future.
Increasingly those people who are going to be successful will need analytical skills, tied to data and information, says Purdue University ag economist Mike Boehlje. “We see this particularly in finance. Some farmers abhor having to keep records to provide to lenders. But we are increasingly going to need to feel comfortable understanding that information, to understand the story the numbers tell.
“Data assessment is going to be an increasing skill more producers need to have,” he adds. “Strategic thinking, risk assessment are other important skills. A willingness to work with data and understand the story it tells – that’s a key skill for the future.”
Another key skill is the ability to produce for today’s consumers. Right now most farmers work in the ‘production push’ supply chain driven by low-cost commodities, with little interest in ‘market pull.’ But market pull is exactly where we are headed.
“We’re increasingly seeing the entire food and production distribution system move from a commodity, supply chain mentality, to a differentiated product, demand driven system,” says Boehlje. “Consumers want food consumption experiences, and that’s very different from the old commodity-driven, produce-and-peddle mentality. That is not the industry of tomorrow.”
That means farmers must have the skill to work in an interdependent system focused on relationships and collaboration –things farmers in the past just didn’t have. “They didn’t want to mess with records or have relationships with others but increasingly those are skills essential for a farmer of the future,” he adds.
“I don’t think it’s just about scale, it’s about the ability to achieve more differentiation, to address more consumer needs,” says Mary Shelman, former director of Harvard’s School of Agribusiness. “I see enterprises with different specializations, and that’s fantastic. We’re in the middle of a food movement.”
Agriculture is an industry in transformation. It’s been tradition-bound for decades, but there is now disruption, and it’s coming from non-traditional players. When IBM and Silicon Valley invest in ag, you know it’s not your daddy’s farm anymore.
Connolly’s advice to farmers?
“Buy yourself a passport, travel the world, and learn as much as you can,” he says. “When you see innovation, embrace it as quickly as possible, because that will be the farm of the future.”
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.