When most people think of farming, they don’t think of high tech. The truth is, technology is as pervasive and critical on the farm as it is in the boardroom.
We caught up with Randy Krotz, CEO of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, a consortium of more than 90 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agriculture partners, who talked to us about the importance of technology in today’s farming, how sustainability and food production work hand in hand, and the benefits of putting Fitbits on cattle.
How does technology fit into the farming and agriculture discussion?
Technology has tremendously enhanced the way agriculture has been produced over the last few decades, and it has the potential to advance the industry even more. When we talk about technology, we like to use the term “smart farm.” When you talk about a farmer wanting to be sustainable, the technology really helps the conversation. It brings a lot of young people into the mix. And that’s great for farming.
There’s two kinds of technology when it comes to farming: the IT side and the food side. Why are they such hot topics in the public discussion?
Consumers have a romanticized view of today’s American farm. People think it’s much more “Green Acres” than a high-tech operation because they’ve been somewhat manipulated into thinking that technology in food is bad—when the truth couldn’t be more opposite. Organic food companies want people to think that if it isn’t mom and pop then it’s somehow industrialized and sterile, and that puts technology on the shelf, unfortunately. For example, food companies are challenging farmers to be sustainable. They are making public statements about only sourcing from farms that are sustainable, and in some cases, non-GMO only. The most sustainable tools we have on a farm are our GMO crops. It reduces the amount of tractor trips across a field, and in many cases negates the need to turn the soil. Because we’re able to use GMO crops, we don’t have to apply insecticides and pesticides. Because the soil isn’t turned, nutrients like nitrogen don’t get washed away in heavy rains and require additional application. So when activists ask us to be sustainable by not using GMO crops, it’s kind of ridiculous.
What other kinds of tech are used on today’s farms?
Today we watch a hog’s water consumption very closely—because when they get sick their consumption goes down. We have technology that monitors and relays that information to a farmer’s smartphone so he or she knows on a per-capita basis if the water consumption is dropping. It helps make farmers acutely aware of the health of their animals. They can get a veterinarian involved sooner, and because of the technology, we’re able to use fewer antibiotics than before. For our animals that are kept in relative confinement, they are actually healthier than the alternative because we’re able to regulate how much corn and soybean they get, and reduce the amount it takes to get them to market weight. We’re able to control the temperature and air flow within the buildings, which reduces fighting stress of hot and cold days. It reduces the overall carbon footprint relative to how much corn and soybean it takes per animal.
I think technology and open communication will break down the barriers and open a whole world of new food options.
What about managing natural resources like water?
In the old days of farming, you would cover a field with water. Everything would get the same application. The same was true of fertilizers, nutrients, pesticides, you name it. The field was treated as one unit, and you would spend considerable time working the soil. What we’re able to do with water conservation and application is amazing. The tractors today are essentially run by iPads and can just about get around the fields by themselves. We can take soil samples of every square yard of the field and create a map of the field that shows water condition, nutrient density, etc. When the 80-foot booms from the tractor go across, they can lay down customized fertilizer amounts, water amounts, insecticides, etc., right on the spot that needs it, which might be very different from the part of the field 12 feet away. This is highly sustainable because it applies water and nutrients on an as-needed basis with less waste. We use drones to take infrared pictures of the crops to spot where stressed parts of the field are, and it can show insect infestations. You used to have to walk through the fields to look for it, and now it can be done remotely in a fraction of the time. What it’s really done is enhance the farmer’s ability to be more efficient and decrease waste.
Do you see technology driving more young people into farming?
I do, and I think the USDA is already starting to see that. But to be fair, there have been two things that primarily drive people out of agriculture—the economics and the work. It’s a big initial investment to start a farm. On the work side, it’s an everyday job. When it’s the 4th of July, you don’t go to the lake, you milk your cows. But the technology is making it much more efficient and much less human labor-intensive. Cows are basically fed and milked by automation, with only human oversight. I visited a farm in California that had 250 cows wearing Fitbits. They study how much they are moving, how often they eat, and when they should be feeding them to maximize milk production. On the open range, it’s also impossible to not keep track of the cow, thanks to the GPS technology. All these things fit around managing your resources, trying to reduce water consumption, reduce waste, etc. Technology enables that to happen.
What does the farm look like 20 years from now?
I think it becomes incredibly consumer-centric. We want that transparency and ability to communicate directly with the consumer, to understand the wants and desires, and to be able to openly share that. Farmers haven’t done a good job of communicating with the public, and I think technology is going to turn that on its head. Also, I think there will be more acceptance of the international side of food. The big thing right now is “locally sourced” food, but it’s just a gimmick. People in California want a BLT sandwich, but when was the last time you saw a wheat field or a hog farm in California? It’s hard to eat locally in Minneapolis for about eight months a year. I think technology and open communication will break down the barriers, and open a whole world of new food options.