Two autonomous compact tractors performing spraying functions in a Texas vineyard. Credit: ASIrobots, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia
Earlier this month, in Monterey, Calif., a meeting organized by the Produce Marketing Association provided an opportunity for a group of local growers of crops such as lettuce, artichokes and strawberries to find out how the latest digital technologies were changing agriculture. Participants heard about how technologies like robots, drones and predictive analytics could help them improve their operations.
That same week, just up the road from Monterey, a conference called AgTech Silicon Valley was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Along with actual farmers, the meeting was attended by a dozen venture capitalists, who identified agriculture as a field that is ripe (pun intended) for disruption by technology. In good Silicon Valley fashion, the meeting included a session in which entrepreneurs from agtech startups pitched their companies to angel investors and VCs.
A number of large tech vendors such as HP and IBM have also become interested in this sector. According to attorney Roger Royce, organizer of the Silicon Valley conference and the founder of an agtech incubator, agriculture has been identified as "the last frontier for technology companies." And it is a substantial sector: In 2013, agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $789 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, which represented a 4.7% share. Farming alone was responsible for approximately 1% of overall GDP.
Of course, the use of technology in farming is hardly new. A century ago, the introduction of tractors and other mechanized equipment vastly increased farm yields and dramatically reduced the portion of the labor force that worked in agriculture, which now accounts for less than 5% of U.S. jobs. The so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s provided another boost in agricultural productivity through the development of higher-yield, pest-resistant crops and the introduction of modern irrigation techniques. By the end of the 20th century, farms had already adopted a lot of technology. The cab of a modern tractor has begun to resemble an airplane cockpit, with GPS capabilities and computer screens that display information about everything from mechanical performance to the tractor's position and current weather data.
The third revolution
The revolution that is taking place now on the farm involves the addition of intelligence to the technologies already in place to enable what is known as "precision agriculture." Its goal is to provide farmers with abundant, real-time, actionable information about the state of their fields: how crops are growing, how much water or fertilizer is needed, what weeds and insects may be invading the fields. Like many other industry sectors, farmers are beginning to see the value of getting access to big data that can provide them with a new level of knowledge and control over their production processes.
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