Beware those oft-cited technology predictions

Many future gazers have farmers of the future sitting in their offices controlling farm equipment virtually and while that is the direction technology is heading, driverless tractors will remain the anomaly rather than the norm for the near term and perhaps much longer. | Getty Images

Predictions abound on how agriculture will evolve in the years ahead. In my opinion, some-often cited predictions are out to lunch.

Many future gazers have farmers of the future sitting in their offices controlling farm equipment virtually and while that is the direction technology is heading, driverless tractors will remain the anomaly rather than the norm for the near term and perhaps much longer.

Autonomous grain carts exist to pull beside the combine on command, take the unloaded grain and then move it to a designated spot. However, this technology is not in widespread use and it’s difficult to replace all the functions a grain cart driver can perform.

Safety is a big issue just as it is for driverless cars. In the automotive industry, cars will emergency brake for you, give you lane departure alerts and even parallel park, but removing the driver entirely has been a slow process. In certain instances, it will be practical. In other applications, it may never happen. The same is true for farm equipment.

One of the major forays into autonomous equipment is DOT, developed by Norbert Beaujot, the founder of Seed Master. Named after Norbert’s mother Dorothy, DOT is a platform for attaching various farm implements from seeders to rollers to sprayers and the platform operates autonomously.

It’s been five years since DOT made its debut. The technology was sold to Raven Industries in 2020 and then Raven was subsequently sold to CNH Industrial in 2021. Widespread commercialization that once seemed imminent now seems a long way off.

Many crystal ball soothsayers believe farm equipment will evolve from large to small. A swarm of small implements operating autonomously will fulfill the functions of one large implement. You see this on many dairy operations where feed is supplied by autonomous units that move up and down the barn and then return to the recharging station.

This approach may have some field applications, but to date the trend in field equipment has been ever larger units with increased capacity.

New technology is certainly needed for weed control. Herbicides are no longer a silver bullet. Hundreds of weed species worldwide have developed resistance to one or more herbicide groups. Despite efforts to rotate crops and rotate herbicide groups, the problem is only getting worse.

Few new herbicide chemistries are being developed. As well, consumers are increasingly wary of chemical residues in the food supply even if the residues are well below allowable limits.

In some cases, farmers will revert to more tillage for weed control, but that is widely viewed as detrimental to soil quality. As well, it releases carbon to the atmosphere.

Sprayers that can detect green growth or even differentiate one plant from another have been in various stages of development for many years.

Precision drone sprayers have received a lot of attention and while the technology may have a role in fields with only a smattering of weeds, it’s difficult to believe they will be useful for the majority of cases where weed pressure is significant.

In the livestock industry, cultured meat is viewed as the future by some pundits. Cost, safety and consumer acceptance is likely to prevent lab-grown “meat” from becoming mainstream anytime soon and perhaps forever. On the other hand, plant-based meat analogues are a clear contender for consumer dollars.

Recycling predictions one year to the next doesn’t make them any more accurate. Eventually, someone needs to identify predictions that are off the mark.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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