Farming at your fingertips: how technology is changing agricultural work
About five years ago, David Wallace spent the summer on his family’s potato farm in Skagit Valley, Washington. Wallace had grown up on the farm, but left to pursue chemistry studies, eventually working as a data scientist. But he always felt a return to his roots.
During his visit, Wallace listened to his father complain about the farm’s irrigation systems. They were error prone, wasting huge amounts of water and time. Whenever there was a problem with the rate or center line, the team had to drive around the field to find the exact point of the problem, then figure out how to fix it. The main problem, the elder Wallace told his son, was that there was no way to see what was going on with the irrigation system from a distance. After a quick search, Wallace discovered that there were not enough monitoring and control systems available on the market. So he made one. And just like that, FarmHQ was born.
The small unit attaches to a central point in the irrigation system and uses cloud-based software to monitor irrigation reels and pumps. Wallace spent weeks tinkering with his code before testing it on his farm and with a few friends. Word quickly spread and other farms wanted to take advantage of the time-saving device. Today, FarmHQ is in its third year of development and is being used on approximately 30 farms in the Pacific Northwest, with plans to scale it up tenfold this year. Wallace never returned to his old job as a data scientist.
Technology like FarmHQ aims to help farmers become more efficient, saving time and money. Wallace claims that implementing his system can yield up to 1500% return on investment over a season. “These systems pump between 250 and 400 gallons of water per minute over a very small area of land,” he says. “We can directly calculate the pumping time and the amount of water saved thanks to the integration of our system. We also know very precisely how much driving time we save farmers, because we know the location of each of their equipment and we know where their home base is. So every time they open this app to check out that gear, we’ve basically saved them a trip to the field. »
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Some of the technologies adopted by farmers have a physical component, such as FarmHQ. Others are simply software and apps that help collect the multitude of data from agriculture, and that makes the process more collaborative. Such a product is Agmonde, essentially a management tool for farmers. With over 11,000 active monthly users, Agworld collects and analyzes farm data—what you grow and when it was plowed, sprayed, irrigated and weeded. Then you can share this information with anyone else who might need it. “We recently brought three growers to Texas, and they were referred by an Australian agronomist they work with,” said Zach Sheely, president of Agworld. Using its software, growers enter their data into the app, and an agronomist is able to analyze the numbers and make recommendations from halfway around the world.
With Agworld, Sheely’s goal was to find a way to simplify all the information entry a farmer has to deal with on a daily basis. Because, as any grower knows, no job exists in isolation. Everything you do on a farm is done in the context of all the other work.
“If I’m irrigating a field and I want to program the autonomous tractor to drive over it to mow, I need to know when I irrigated. If it’s too wet, I’m actually going to create more problems for myself. I can get that pile of tractors, I can create ruts, which then impact the ability of future irrigation to percolate through the soil structure,” says Sheely. Its software is therefore a means of collecting all this data and presenting it to the farmer in a coherent format. Agworld also works in tandem with other technologies to do predictive modeling, like reading upcoming weather forecasts to predict temperature, humidity and wind, and give recommendations based on what it sees.
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There is also technology that goes even further. If Agworld is just an app and FarmHQ is an app with a small physical element, what happens when you combine these types of systems? Well, you get a small farm that can be operated entirely remotely.
freight farms is essentially a farm in a box, albeit a very large box. It’s a shipping container, to be precise. Although not the traditional method of farming, confined grow spaces are becoming increasingly popular in areas where geography or weather conditions impact the growing season. “A lot of our farmers live in cold climates, whether it’s Alaska, Norway, Sweden or Canada. But we also have a lot of farms that are in the Caribbean where space is limited. Or in the desert, we have farms in Egypt, we have farms in the Middle East,” says Marc Bliss, customer success manager for Freight Farms.
Every aspect of a Freight Farms container can be controlled via an app, so farmers can change lights, humidity, fertilizer, and water with the touch of a finger. Bliss says the business is popular among small farmers who sell at local markets and groups such as schools or Boys and Girls Clubs. The technology allows a wide range of crops to grow in a small space and with minimal physical input, so more people can participate in the process.
This kind of technology “is absolutely the future of farming,” Bliss says. “It increases durability; it lowers the barrier to entry. And I think the most important part is that you can bring farms directly to communities looking to be served.
Despite the benefits at stake, concerns are growing as these technologies are adopted more broadly. Glenn Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at the University of Washington, has studied the agricultural technology monitoring aspect and its impact on small farms. Stone points to a few aspects of the agtech boom that could be cause for concern. First, the potential impacts of the technology on small farms are simply not yet known. But more worryingly, Stone notes that reliance on this type of technology could result in the loss of traditional knowledge in some areas. “Some technologies simply provide new information for farmers to take into account; others take complete ownership of the decision-making process,” Stone wrote at modern farmer in an email. “There is a deep-rooted idea in the developed world that peasants really need to be told how to farm…but agricultural decision-making processes have important, indeed crucial, social components.
Stone also worries about how the technology could spawn other technologies that are all intertwined and intertwined. If a farmer uses an app to track the application of fertilizer to their field, will that app only work with a specific brand of fertilizer? And then, do you also need to source the related and branded sprayers, hoses and reels? What’s the end point when it comes to technologies created for profit?
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But for young farmers flocking to products such as Freight Farms, these technologies do not represent a waste of knowledge. Instead, they are seen as a way to make farming more accessible to a wider group. “The software takes a lot of the guesswork out of farming,” says Bliss, making farming a viable career for people who might not have thought of it before. “You can spend less time worrying about your crops because you can monitor them from anywhere. You can get alerts if your tank is low or if a light was supposed to come on and didn’t. So you know at all times what is happening on your farm.
This could be the real appeal of agricultural technology. Although farming at any scale is always hard work, there are ways to make it easier and more efficient. And for a younger generation, who values work-life balance, knowing that there are ways to monitor or automate farming functions could make the business more attractive.
“A lot of people have moved away from farming because of lifestyle goals,” says Sheely, noting that raising a family or traveling isn’t always perfectly compatible with running a farm. “We’re going to have fewer people involved in farming, but probably higher skill levels in every individual. I think this is where technology can improve your life. If you are going to be part of agriculture, it can unlock opportunities and allow you to have a better quality of life.