Like other economic activities, agriculture is increasingly affected by the digital revolution, and we are now on the threshold of a significant transformation of the industry.
Digital agriculture refers to the employment of computational and information technologies and offers new opportunities through the ubiquitous availability of highly interconnected and data-intensive tools as part of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” It applies to all crop and livestock systems in that it reflects a shift from generalized management of farm resources towards highly optimized, individualized, real-time, hyper-connected and data-driven management. The desired outcomes of leveraging digital agriculture are more profitable and sustainable production systems.
We were asked to develop a vision document for digital agriculture in New York State. As part of the mandate, agricultural producers were engaged to assess adoption of new technologies and to identify challenges and recommendations to advance digital agriculture. We organized a workshop with farmers and agri-businesses, performed a statewide survey, did a literature analysis, and studied current and evolving trends in digital agriculture. Our report can be accessed at bit.ly/NYSDigitalAgReport.
The technologies that enable digital agriculture are multiple and varied, and are inclusive of conventional precision agriculture tools, as well as computational and sensing tools that are yet to be developed. Production efficiencies can be gained from the integration of data associated with multiple technologies and the real-time transfer of data and information between field equipment, barn, office and the Cloud.
Data analytics and telematics (the long-distance transfer of digital information) are key to achieving the benefits from digital agriculture. The main enabling tools that exist today include sensors, digital controllers, digital communication (cellular, broadband and others) and computational decision tools. Field-based activities are also enabled by geo-locationing (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), yield monitors, precision soil sampling, proximal and remote sensing, unmanned aerial vehicles, variable rate technologies, auto-steer, guidance, and robotics. Livestock-specific technologies include radio frequency identification, automatic milking systems and electronic feeding systems, among others.
Assessing Needs for Digital Agriculture
Our farmer survey suggested several interventions for improving digital agriculture adoption. A recurring theme of both the workshop and the survey was the large current analytics and data management gap relative to the capabilities of modern-day equipment, uncertainty about technology benefits and inadequate digital connectivity. 34 percent of respondents indicated insufficient technical support, while 51 percent reported that they are uncertain of how to implement new technologies in a profitable manner.
Agriculture is following other industry sectors in that the benefits from digital technologies are the primary source of increased production efficiencies. In a global economic environment, our regional agriculture’s competiveness is strongly tied to its ability to innovate in these key aspects of the production system. But digital agriculture will also create a digital divide in the farming community. Therefore, this adoption process needs to be supported in an environment that allows the entire farming community to fully capitalize on the production efficiency gains.
Opportunities, Challenges and Recommendations for Digital Agriculture
By seizing opportunities and overcoming barriers, regional technology companies, farmers and public institutions can help lead our agricultural industry into the digital age, while foregoing these opportunities will negatively impact the industry’s global competitiveness. We determined that connectivity limits the effective employment of digital agriculture technologies in many rural areas. Generally, needs exist around (i) expanding broadband access; (ii) improving cellular coverage and data transmission speeds for proper uploading and downloading of data; (iii) establishing low-power wide area networks to support sensor technology and equipment communication through the so-called “Internet of Things”; and (iv) universal access to Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) technology in rural areas, a technique used to reduce and remove common positioning errors which makes machine control possible.
Concerns with data tend to focus around security and privacy, the use of such data by private companies to advance their own rather than public interests, as well as farmer ability to employ their own data to improve management and profitability.
In order to advance digital agriculture, educational issues need to be addressed at multiple levels related to (i) farmer knowledge on the use and economics of the technologies, (ii) training of professional service providers and educators, and (iii) undergraduate and graduate training for the next generation professionals.
For research, opportunities and concerns center on (i) farm data availability for analytics, (ii) highly innovative research initiatives and the development of new management recommendations, and (iii) partnerships between the research-extension community and private sector companies. We also believe that there is a need for a public-sector data center infrastructure that allows for the secure collection, curation and analysis of farm data, with appropriate consent, privacy and security considerations. The data would be stored for farmer benefit and also become available for aggregate and anonymized analytics and the development of a new generation of management recommendations.
In summary, digital agriculture offers exciting prospects for our region’s agriculture, including field crops, specialty crops, livestock and even organic production. The broader industry and the associated public support infrastructure needs to adapt to this new paradigm in order to capitalize on these opportunities.