Today, the average farmer relies on sophisticated machinery to help get the job done quickly, efficiently, and within budget. Farming is a notoriously risky10 business full of uncertainty.11 Farmers must become experts in managing rapidly changing conditions and variables that impact their harvests. Everything from climate to pests, commodity prices to water supplies are all the domain of a modern farmer. The next generation of farmers is working to address these uncertainties by adopting farming practices that increase yields over time and make their soils more tolerant to drought and resistant to flood. Some are also incorporating new technologies in novel ways to support these efforts.
Autonomous tractors, drones, and remote sensors collect and analyze data in order to help farmers increase crop yields. Even tasks that require a discerning eye can now be performed by an algorithm. Image recognition software trained on thousands of plant photos can track the ripeness of nectarines, grapes, and berries. Weeding robots can decimate invasive plants with astonishing speed. By detecting patterns of symptoms that correspond with a bacteria or fungus—such as color change, wilting, or spots—AI can spot diseases that can easily waylay farmers. We see big opportunities for big data to help small and mid-scale farmers.
One problem is that common pests can appear out of nowhere and ravage entire fields in a matter of days. Craig Ganssle created a new AI tool called FARMWAVE in order to help farmers identify plant pathogens, bugs, and weeds by simply tapping an app. “A process that normally takes a couple of days or even weeks to get an answer from a pathologist or entomologist, we’ve narrowed down to about 10 seconds,” Ganssle says. Trained on high-quality agricultural datasets from land-grant universities, FARMWAVE’s algorithm is over 95% accurate. This precision is important, given the breakneck speed of the industry. Farmers—like the rest of us—don’t want to drown in unnecessary data. “They say, ‘just give me something that works and produces results,’” Ganssle says.
AI tools are helping farmers across the country harvest exceptional crops and increase their yields in the face of overwhelming environmental and economic challenges.15 By eliminating some risk, predictive software could help to ensure longer-term stability by making farming a more attractive job to those who are new to the sector. For Ganssle, technology can bridge both generational and knowledge gaps. “Succession is a problem in farming,” he notes. “We have to grow more food in the next 30 years than we have in the last 8,000 with less land and fewer people desiring to become farmers.” Tech can help with that.