Five top trends driving changes in agriculture

UW Extension
Moisture precision sensors in a cornfield are used to assure that the crops are receiving the right amount of water and nutrients.

Madison — Tools, technology and a changing workforce are driving changes in the agriculture landscape – changes that can to have a positive impact on the agriculture industry both in Wisconsin and across the world, according to John Shutske, University of Wisconsin-Extension biological systems specialist at UW-Madison.

“The rapid increase in technology changes that has expanded our computing capability has also caused decreases in the costs to do business,” Shutske said. “Through exponential growth, we’ve engaged in warp drive and are rapidly approaching light speed when it comes to changes in technology.”

Exponential growth, when applied to technology using Moore’s Law – named after an early computer pioneer – tells us that computing power doubles approximately every 12 to 18 months.

Computer capability

“We have a lot of computer capability to harness and leverage to our advantage,” Shutske told attendees at the recent Wisconsin Agribusiness Classic conference.

The increasing computer capability plays a role in four of the five top trends Shutske sees having an impact on Wisconsin agriculture: Big Data, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, a sharing/collaborative economy, and the role of women in agriculture.

In reference to Big Data, he noted there is a virtual tsunami of data at our disposal. New data collection devices are constantly being developed, adding to the growing science and business developing around big data, data science and data mining. Often referred to as the Internet of Things, ubiquitous sensor systems collect data from a variety of sources – a tractor that is fully connect to the Internet; an air filter with an IP address that can send an email to the manufacturer to order a new one without the needing to worry about it; and devices and sensors in crops to measure sunlight, heat units and pest pressures.

With the growth of data collection and computing capabilities, Shutske said Wisconsin has to find faster, more affordable and more reliable solutions to broadband, high speed Internet and mobile coverage.

Artificial Intelligence

The second trend – artificial intelligence is driven by the massive amounts of data collected and continued to be collected. This information can be processed and used for critical decisions; some early agricultural applications might include pest management, scheduling operations or optimizing animal health or crop health treatments and regimes.

“We’re seeing examples emerging in the health care industry of how artificial intelligence is revolutionizing health care,” Shutske said.

In the medical sector, IBM is using its computer system, Watson, to partner with several hospitals and research centers – cancer is one target. Medical researchers publish more than 700,000 cancer treatment articles every year in science journals. While the average oncology or cancer specialist in these clinics, university centers and hospitals might read 180 or 200 articles a year, there is no way for one person to read, assimilate, and put all this new information to use.

Watson can read, process, sort, and develop patterns and relationships in those 700,000 articles in 15 minutes. Give Watson a day, and a unit that’s the size of five pizza boxes has in it more knowledge and wisdom on treating cancer than existed on this planet ever before. Several examples are now emerging of artificial intelligence suggesting treatment protocols or combinations of medication, precision surgery, pinpointed radiation and other cellular and molecular treatments with great success.

Development and Marketing

Shutske said development and marketing will continue for autonomous vehicles, including cars, trucks, tractors, robots and UAVs – the third trend. He said the biggest delay will not be the capabilities of the technology, but rather government regulation and proving the benefits to insurers.

“All the major car manufacturers are running large-scale highway trials,” he said. “Right now everyone is concerned about safety; at some point, things will shift and safety will become the main selling point and reason to move ahead.”

Sharing/collaborative economy

The rapid emergence of the sharing/collaborative economy is the fourth trend that will influence the future of agriculture.

“In agriculture, we already have done some of this,” he said. “In fact, we’ve done some if it for 100 years. Agriculture has been a leader in the cooperative business model.”

For example, with ag machinery, how can purchasing a $500,000 combine that only gets used 5 or 6 percent of the time in a given year be justified? Software platforms to enable and facilitate sharing transactions while maintaining data about trust and relationships can be used to offset the cost of equipment.

Using the AirBNB model, Shutske noted that similar types of business opportunities with portable or otherwise flexible ag assets will become available.

“If I rent a room from AirBNB and it’s a dump, that provider will get booted from the platform quickly,” he said. “We will be able to use similar apps and relationship data managing software to allow sharing and collaborative transactions for things like expensive automated ag machines, or even processing equipment and storage facilities.”

Agricultural workforce

Shutske’s fifth trend shaping the future of agriculture is not connected to technology, but rather major changes and shifts in the agriculture workforce; specifically the role of women and new ways of thinking about the world of agriculture.

In the U.S., the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture showed that women as principal farm operators are making up a larger and larger fraction of the industry. They account for almost $13 billion in annual sales of ag products that year.

Globally by the year 2045 or 2050, agriculture will need to feed 9 billion people on the planet. A huge fraction of that population growth will be in areas that currently face hunger and food supply instability, but they are also places underperforming in terms of food production potential. One big priority is to recognize and purposely support the role women play. Several studies point to the fact that women are doing nearly half of the agricultural work globally, yet, in many areas lack equal access to capital, machines, and other technologies.

“If you provide a man and a woman with equal access to resources in a developing country in Africa, or Central America, or parts of Asia – women will generate up to a 30 percent increase with the same resources, meaning a 30 percent greater return on investment,” Shutske said. “Several business studies here in the U.S. point to this same phenomenon! Fortune 500 companies in the upper 25 percent or upper quartile with participation by women on corporate Boards of Directors generate 42 percent greater return on sales and 53 percent greater return on equity.”

Shutske noted, “Agriculture is increasingly a people a relationship business, we need to learn from each other and we need to work together to create opportunities.”