A revolution is coming

What is the future of agriculture? Disruption and chaos. There’s a revolution coming, according to agricultural innovation experts, but it will come with opportunities. By Barb Glen, LETHBRIDGE BUREAU

“Farmers of the future will be innovators,” said Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer at Alltech, a U.S.-based company with interests in animal nutrition, meat and distilling.

“In the future, my recommendation to farmers would be, buy yourself a passport, go travel the world, read as much as you can, learn as much as you can, and when you see innovations, within reason, embrace them as quickly as possible because I think innovators are the ones that are going to be successful, the ones that are going to survive and thrive.

“That’s the farming of the future for me. Innovation.”

Connolly and three other experts discussed the future of farming via a webinar held this fall. The role of consumers, use of so-called big data, autonomous vehicles, nutrigenomics and the attributes of future farmers were part of the conversation.

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Expanded role of consumers

Mary Shelman, former director of the Harvard Business School’s agribusiness program, said farmers of the future will be expected to grow what the market is interested in buying rather than what they prefer to grow and sell.

It sounds obvious, and of course that already occurs to a degree, but Shelman said it’s going to extend to deeper levels.

That is in part due to non-traditional players entering the business. Bill Gates is investing millions in agricultural development. Google is investing in tissue-cultured meat. Jeff Bezos bought Whole Foods with intentions to change traditional food retailing.

“Think about the implications of the supply chain for that, and that differentiation,” said Shelman.

Producers will be increasingly required to differentiate their product and meet specific consumer needs. Technology will help them provide the desired traceability and transparency that consumers increasingly demand, but the economics of doing that aren’t moving in lockstep.

“We need new talent to come in. They can only come in if there’s attractive returns in the sector.”

Shelman emphasized the importance of millennials in shaping the food production system. Those born between 1980 and 2000 are having families and increasing their income. They’re used to getting information in different ways and intent on buying food that reflects their values.

“Food actually reflects their values and this is the thing that perhaps poses the biggest challenge to the traditional food industry, because not only do they want products that meet a certain price point and a certain safety point, they want products that have a purpose. They want products from an industry that has the same values that they do.

“I think it’s putting a very interesting twist on the system right now.”

Big data

The data that can be collected via farm equipment, drones, satellites and other technologies will play a big role in agriculture’s future, the experts agreed.

“You have a tool here to look at millions and billions of observations, whether it’s productivity… the way we grow our crops, how much rain you get, all of this can be integrated into very precise models and that’s going to be the big change in agriculture,” said Karl Dawson, chief science officer at Alltech.

“We’re talking about moving to armchair farming. We’re going to be making our decisions from a site, sitting in front of the computer, looking to see what we can predict in the future. That’s a tremendous tool that we’ve never had before.”

Michael Boehlje of Purdue University says big data can be used not only at the farm level, but by every part of the agricultural production chain. It can allow the sector to trace and evaluate processes as never before.

Autonomous vehicles

They’re already here, said Connolly. Self-driving farm equipment is a logical development in a world where self-driving cars and trucks are already being tested on our roads.

They will also address labour and safety issues, he added.

“I think it is difficult to find labour on farm. When you find labour, you want labour to be well trained and well prepared. You have safety opportunities also. I think there’s just going to be a lot of factors that are going to drive for these autonomously driven tractors and harvesters to become part of our future.”

Boehlje agreed.

“It’s going to be coming much more rapidly than we realize and it has the opportunity to profoundly change the agricultural sector, so it’s a really, really important development.

“My belief is we’ll see this in the fields in five years, not 10 years, and rapidly adopted.”

Nutrigenomics

In simplest terms, nutrigenomics is the study of food nutrients on gene expression in the body that consumes them — “you are what you eat” at the genetic level.

Dawson sees major potential in the technology, which can reveal the effect of food and various ingredients on basic livestock physiology.

“We are starting to narrow in … on the gap between genetic potential and what the animal can do,” he said.

“We have a tool that allows us to actually measure what happens when we make a nutritional change. It’s a very powerful thing.”

He sees a future where animals can be selected for the specific nutrition they can provide, as has long been done in plant breeding.

Through nutrigenomics, producers can potentially measure animal productivity as well as immunity and disease resistance, and alter livestock diets to improve expression of those traits.

He said it could also reduce nutrient needs through more efficient use and lower the effect on the environment.

Who’s your farmer & what does he do?

Farmer demographics are likely to change in coming years, the experts say.

“I think what we’re looking at now is again a fundamental change in what that person’s going to look like,” Connolly said.

“They won’t necessarily grow up on a farm. They might grow up in a city. They won’t necessarily have the skills of maybe understanding animals or understanding plants. They’ll understand data. They’ll understand analytics. They’ll understand equipment. They’ll understand decision making between all of the various technologies of what a person should buy and what they shouldn’t invest in.

“So those are dramatically different skills than we used in the last thousand years, you might say hundred years … to decide who is it that’s a farmer.”

It’s also going to require keen abilities in data management.

“Some farmers abhor record-keeping,” said Boehlje. “We are going to increasingly have to develop that skill and feel comfortable with that skill of looking at numbers, looking at information, trying to understand what they say, the story they tell.”

Besides those attributes, Shelman said the next generation of farmers will have to pay close attention to consumer desires and figure out how to deliver on them.

“It’s not just about producing at the lowest price, but producing what the market wants … and being able to sell into those channels, connect with those channels. So, this is a very big basket now, a very big ask,” she said.

Boehlje also said farmers will have to forego their desire to be completely independent, and instead forge relationships with others in the supply chain.

Connolly summarized it thus: “If anybody thinks that agriculture is going to be the same way in 20 or 30 years’ time, they’ve got their head in the sand.”

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Comments

  • old grouchy

    OK – – – read the article – – – started thinking about what was being said – – – time for a response from someone in the trenches rather than in the bunker 1000 km from the front line.

    “Mary Shelman, former director of the Harvard Business School’s
    agribusiness program, said farmers of the future will be expected to
    grow what the market is interested in buying rather than what they
    prefer to grow and sell.”

    This means that I’m supposed to raise what someone else wants not what I can do – – – somehow that seems like stupid business – – – if I don’t really know what I’m doing – – – I’m going to be sol for getting good results, never mind great ones, and profit – – – just ain’t going to be there!

    Different ‘expert’ – – speaking of the ‘new’ farmer

    “They won’t necessarily grow up on a farm. They might grow up in a city.
    They won’t necessarily have the skills of maybe understanding animals
    or understanding plants. They’ll understand data. They’ll understand
    analytics. They’ll understand equipment. They’ll understand decision
    making between all of the various technologies of what a person should
    buy and what they shouldn’t invest in. . . . .”

    Think about this for a second.
    If you don’t understand plants – – – – how in the ‘whatever’ are you going to be able to grow them?
    If you don’t understand animals – – – how in the ‘whatever (insert favorite expletive)’ are you going to be able to do a good job?

    Analytics is going to be the answer? WTF!!!!
    Equipment is going to be the answer? (see response above!)

    Neither of these are a SOLUTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Both of these are TOOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    But then some ivory tower expert who likely hasn’t done two consecutive real days of work in their life KNOWS these two items are the answers to all of a farmer’s needs.

    Try again – – – – maybe after your experts pull their primary pimples from between their shoulders out of their ailmentory orifices (and use them!!!!).

    And these ‘experts’ are what our regulatory bodies and educators are listening to?

    No wonder we have innovation problems!
    No wonder we have productivity problems!

    On this path (to terminal stupidity) lies ruin!

    • Harold

      I hear your anger and it is justified but it is focused at people who cannot help themselves because they were educated into the BS that they are professing and not by their own choosing. Everyone would tell the truth if they knew it except for the ones who do know the truth and withhold that truth in order to gain a profit by a deception. Money has the power to withhold the truth and there are many unknowingly the disciples of those who are withholding the truth. We are in ruins not because of fate; we are in ruins because the system was deliberately created that way. If the corner stone is not true the building falls and it keeps falling no matter how many times you try to build upon it. The ones building upon it are honest and caring people unaware that the cornerstone is the liar.
      I might further point out that plants were growing quite well on their own before we ever learned how to harvest them. The learning was merely copying what the plant was already doing on its own. and that was not rocket science. If so, the early settlers would have never got off the ground. Every disaster has been manmade by man altering what man does not understand. The great depression and subsequent dust bowl was a manmade disaster caused by removing prairie grass and planting crops in a large area of limited annual rainfall in a ten year weather cycle. Moreover, the concept of farming evolved naturally and started when people grew grain just for the purpose of survival. They threw their scraps out of the window and the chickens ate them and gave them meat and eggs and pillows in return. They gave their cow grass from their property and in turn the cow gave them meat, milk, clothing, and fertilizer and the chickens ate the maggots from the cow pie limiting the flies and breaking down the fertilizer pie. In the most part the animals were the laborers and they were cared for in return, (The bible told them that the animals should enter their “Ark” two by two) and from here the needs of others gave birth to farming and none of this took rocket science to understand until the government and academia bobble heads appeared wanting a “piece of the farmers action”. From here the wealth of the farmer has continuously declined and bobble heads unable to take more money away from the farmer they turned on the taxpayer – the consumer. Now the talking bobble heads are Rich yet produce nothing, and the consumer and farmer poor and struggling for affordable food even though the farmer like the consumer are the ones producing all things by their labors that should bring them wealth but bring the bobble heads all of their wealth instead. We are truly unaware that we are in slavery and bondage and history repeated in need of another Moses. I guess it wasn’t enough that Moses gave to the public the10 commandments of contracting engraved into the stone of the two tablets, but then again, religion and the foolishness of preaching has covered it up to the delight of the government and the Elite.

  • old grouchy

    Second round – – – read the article again – – – it is an interesting example of what happens when someone swallows everything of what they are told without thinking about any part of that information.

    There is a quote where farmers are going to be ‘arm chair farmers’.

    “said Karl Dawson, chief science officer at Alltech.

    “We’re talking about moving to armchair farming. We’re going to be
    making our decisions from a site, sitting in front of the computer,
    looking to see what we can predict in the future. That’s a tremendous
    tool that we’ve never had before.”

    Well – – when Mr Dawson comes up with a tool that will accurately predict the weather (accuracy demands a variation of less than 2% from forecast anything else is not accurate it is an attempt) for 3 days ahead for a site scale of 1/4 section of dirt I just might think he knows something. What I actually ‘need’ is an accurate prediction for that same piece of dirt that is for a time frame of one crop season.

    As any weather watcher knows weather forecasts are lucky to get 80% right in a 3 to 5 day period. They hope for 60% on a quarterly basis.

    But then of course – – – what do I know?

    I don’t have no PhD.

    Doesn’t look like I need one either – – – grin!
    I can tell that those quoted here really aren’t of any practical use – – – except maybe as compost (later on).

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