By Connor Lynch
OTTAWA — Grafton-area cash crop farmer Travis Greydanus is young by farmer standards.
The 27-year-old farms 3,400 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Northumberland County with his smartphone close at hand. It’s not for goofing off. He texts his workers, keeping on top of where they are and what job needs to be done. He checks Twitter to see what farmers are saying about the weather, a source he considers more reliable than the Weather Network. Auto-steer, the steering wheel mounted system in his tractor, guides him through his fields row by row, as he eyes his phone for emails, grain prices, and new seed varieties.
“(Auto-steer) is the simplest, most economical return you’re going to get,” he told Farmers Forum. All he has to do is drive the tractor to the field and turn at the end of each row.
Greydanus and other farmers his age are constantly on their smartphones, and plenty of his peers are even more tech-savvy than he is. But his father, 54-year-old Ian Greydanus, is not a fan of all the new developments. He’s a stickler for the old ways of doing things, relying on conversations with grain brokers when he’s selling and taking notes by hand when he needs to. His one concession is his flip phone. Not every farmer his age will even carry a cell phone, he said.
But as technology advances faster and faster and robots become more sophisticated, old-school farmers are going to be increasingly faced with the prospect of getting with the program or getting out.
As it stands, farmers can already gather a plethora of information about the home farm and store that data. Many farmers can now tell you their farm’s five-year average corn or soybeans yields off the top of their heads.
In Western Canada, big data helps farmers with huge operations turn hundreds or thousands of individual bits of data into coherent and usable information.
Farmers Edge, a data-driven crop consultation company with offices in five countries, collates huge amounts of data for farmers that provide precision inputs and guidance on anything from what time of day it will be best to spray one of his fields, to how much seed and fertilizer his field needs, section by section. The company’s head of sustainability, Bruce Ringrose, told Farmers Forum that data on the farm is “the next oil boom,” and companies like his are going to invest seriously in synthesizing, understanding, and communicating all that information. So, there’s a lot more data coming.
Devices can increasingly talk to each other to share information. It’s called the Internet of Things, where devices communicate with each other by themselves. It can be as simple as setting up an alert on your smartphone to tell you when grain prices have hit your target price. It can be as complex as a sensor on a boom scanning plants to tell a manure spreader how much fertilizer each plant needs.
Life won’t become more difficult for the pen-and-paper farmer, but his plugged-in neighbours are going to be piling on the advantages.
Peter Gredig, a Western Ontario crop farmer and the co-founder of AgNition Inc., an ag software company, said that the technology to connect different devices is cheap and readily available. Companies will increasingly connect devices first, and figure out later how to best take advantage of all the recorded data.
Big companies are investing in all kinds of technology with an eye to the future. John Deere bought robotics company Blue River Technology for $305 million last year. The company makes agricultural robots that can identify weeds and spray just that one weed with just the right amount of herbicide. Robots can be programmed to learn. The robots see with cameras, use artificial intelligence to learn the difference between plants, and have automated sprayers that figure out what to spray, when to spray it, and how much to spray it with.
A bunch of British scientists without much hands-on farming experience wanted to see how much they could automate the farming process. It was an expensive, government-funded project, called the Hands-Free Hectare. The entire hectare cost CDN $340,000 from start to finish. It was also disappointing on the yield front; the hectare of barley only yielded 4.5 metric tons, much less than the average 6.8 metric tons you’d get from a more conventionally-grown field. But the experiment showed what can be done. You can bring a barley crop from seed to harvest without ever walking on a field or driving a tractor.
For farmers who love being in the cab and can’t imagine giving it up, there’ll be a cost to that. As robots get smarter, they will do more hands-on jobs more quickly and more precisely, freeing the farmer’s time to do the things that robots can’t.
Farmers of the future might not need to walk the field ever again. A remote-controlled miniature helicopter the size of a housecat, better known as a drone, with a 360-degree camera mounted on it could send live footage back to a virtual-reality headset. Drones can be equipped with cameras and scanners that can collect all kinds of data, giving farmers yield estimates and warnings about possibly sick plants.
American ag-tech enthusiast, farmer, drone consultant, and Illinois farm equipment dealership manager, Chad Colby, said that near-complete automation on the farm, especially for specialty crops, will be available inside of 10 years. “Are you going to be able to push a button, and have a fleet of drones fly out and spray your crops? No, but specialty growers will be doing that. It’s coming,” he told a group of Ontario growers last year.
Bigger will no longer be better when it comes to machinery. Countless small machines will be planting, spraying, and harvesting, will fly out to spray fungicides or pesticides. Small robots carrying tiny amounts of seeds will handle selected small patches of field for planting. And if one tiny robot breaks down, planting, spraying, or harvest can continue. But if your combine breaks down, everything can grind to a halt while you try to get it running again.
The agricultural conference, Agritechnica, in Germany in December saw equipment dealers show off tons of fancy new equipment. Fendt showcased its Xaver swarm robots; looking very much like neatly-marching beer coolers on wheels: 12 of them are expected to replace an 8-row planter. The company has working robots and is planning pilot projects on farms in Europe, Australia, and Africa.
Researchers at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics have already developed autonomous robots about the size of a smart car that can drive through rows of crops, scan plants for yields estimates, harvest fruit, spray weeds, and send all that data back to the farmer. An Australian company, Swarmfarm, is trying to bring a small, automated farm robot about the size of a car to market this year. The robot will be able to handle planting, spraying, fertilizing and harvesting, and is expected to retail for about $150,000.
But not all new technology comes with sticker shock. Gredig said the only obstacle is attitude. “Most of this stuff is accessible. When you challenge farmers, they say they aren’t techy. But they have robotic milkers, they use yield monitors. Most people would say that’s unbelievable technology.”
And it just keeps coming.
“This idea of swarm farming with small drone tractors, it sounds like a dream,” Gredig said. But there are guys in Australia doing this now. If you try and crystal ball gaze, by the time you’ve said it, someone’s using it.”