When it comes to the science of growing and commoditizing food, the ag sector has never been more tech-forward.
If you walk back the narrative 60 years, Nebraska’s independent farmer was supposed to have gone the way of the dodo bird by now. The state’s legacy of family farms was long ago to have yielded to market pressures and the buying power of deep-pocketed conglomerates, which were going to gobble up land and streamline the path from the field to markets all over the globe.
And while it is true that the number of family farms has decreased over the years, it is hardly a situation where the family farm is on the brink of extinction. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Rumors of independent farming’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” In fact, Nebraska farmers, not unlike the state’s ag sector overall, are arguably more in control of their destiny than at any other time in the history of the state, despite stiff challenges over labor shortages, market fluctuations, financing and international unrest.
And why? Technology; tools that not only help producers raise more and better foodstuffs more efficiently and cost-effectively, but also help plug them into the agribusiness ecosystem that brings their products to the nation and the world. As the latest generations of farm families employ digital technologies, each individual operation becomes exponentially more savvy in terms of management, marketing and a host of other profitability measurements.
“There are tons of ag opportunities in this state as some kids might help the family farm more by becoming an ag advisor, drone applicator, precision ag specialist or a mechanic,” said Andy Chvatal, executive director with the Nebraska Soybean Board. “Technology plays a very vital role with nutrient application, irrigation timing and optimal seed placement. Satellite imagery provides another set of eyes to create layers and zones. It’s not a one size fits all mentality anymore; our growers need to be precise in all aspects of their operation.”
“Producers continue to adapt to the changes in the market and what it demands from them,” agreed Josh DeMers, Combine program manager with Invest Nebraska. “We see family farms adopting technological tools that help improve yields, reduce water usage, monitor fertilizer, understand the moisture levels, et cetera. This results in advantages for each party involved.”
Development on Many Fronts
Technology is not only maximizing existing farmland, but also helping to bring more land into production than ever before. As Brandon Silveira, founder and CEO of FarmFundr.com wrote for Forbes, “Farms are evolving, both in size and value … I believe one reason for these changes can be attributed to technology. Land that was once considered ‘undesirable’ or difficult to farm can now be developed into a healthy, operational farm with the right technology.”
Advanced technology is so prevalent in agriculture these days, that attending a farm-related trade show is likely to yield more talks about apps than acres and computer chips than center pivots. That is, except for the presentations showing how those computer chips are helping the center pivots water with more precision than ever before.
Successful Farming reported as much in March when the publication detailed the rapidly developing role artificial intelligence (AI) will soon bring to the field. The article stated how AI applications will soon allow the farmer to see optimal production right down to the seedling level, as discussed by panelists at the 2023 World Agri-Tech Summit in San Francisco.
“Data collection and artificial intelligence (AI) implementation have become increasingly prevalent among new agriculture technology,” wrote Alex Gray. “The resolution, or scale, of data, has been getting higher, slowly narrowing down from entire farms to acres and soon down to the individual plant … [Developers] hope with AI technology processing data and computer vision, farmers will be able to manage their fields, down to individual sections of the plant, in real time.”
While at present widespread application of such futuristic tools is a way off, there’s still far more technology at work in agriculture than Nebraska’s general public may realize, from machinery and market research to more advanced hybrids.
“Technology has been very impactful on the family farm,” said Jim Robinson, chief technology officer with Rob-See-Co, which develops and markets advanced seed for corn, soybeans, alfalfa and sorghum. “While large farms are controlling more acres than ever before, technological advancements have allowed family farms to be more efficient.
“New corn hybrids and soybean varieties from Rob-See-Co are more resilient in the face of adversity. With better standability, disease tolerance and higher yield potential, new products don’t need to be managed nearly as closely as hybrids and varieties of 25 years ago.”
Farming Process Aided
Bringing that seed to maturity is another area where the farmer has more and better tools at his or her disposal, Robinson said.
“Water rights and restrictions will likely impact more of the state than we have seen in previous decades. This will impact Nebraska farmers who rely on irrigation to produce their crop in our drier climate of Nebraska,” he said. “Sensor technology and hybrid improvements will allow producers to stabilize yields while more closely managing their cost of production. While technologies will improve grain marketing, it will also increase the competitiveness of grain marketing.”
As effective and prevalent as new technology is becoming, it’s not the be-all, end-all salvation for the challenges facing Nebraska’s ag sector today. DeMers said new technologies are sometimes being developed without the direct input of working producers, which either stunt the effectiveness of those tools or slows their adoption.
“When we look at the opportunity side, we are surrounded by it,” he said. “There is precision ag, fermentation, biotechnology, irrigation management, ag robotics and on and on. We are seeing so much activity it’s hard to quantify where to focus.
“I believe the biggest challenge we are facing is the disconnect between the producers and those building technology to benefit the agricultural industry. The producer needs to have direct feedback and feel the value of the technology if they are going to use it someday.”
To this end, The Combine not only assists tech companies in the ways that are typical in the startup world, but also helps form connections between companies and the front-line producers that could benefit from the new technology.
“The Combine is a statewide initiative supporting high-growth entrepreneurs in food and agriculture,” he said. “The program consists of commercialization support through mentorship and a capital readiness program, networking events, a network of partnering producers across the state, as well as incubation space on Nebraska Innovation Campus.
“The Combine Insights Network bridges the gap between early-stage technology entrepreneurs and farmers. As part of the incubator program, start-up companies are partnered with producers across the state. We are also constantly coming up with new ways to help move this industry forward, such as by partnering with producers across the state to work with the startups to test out the products and give direct feedback. This results in ultimately creating a better product for the producer.”
The Future is Bright
Ag industry groups are also helping to leverage the ag sector into alternative use for their crops. Chvatal said soybeans are a great example, and the Nebraska Soybean Board is constantly looking for new uses for the versatile crop that are in step with changing market needs.
“Climate-smart funding is becoming a hotter topic and partnerships will continue to arise,” he said. “Carbon markets are here to stay. Our farmers are great stewards of the environment, and they’ll continue to have opportunities for being sustainable in what they do. I think we’ll continue to see more end-user and producer partnerships.
“For example, California’s fuel requirements are spurring demand for soybean supply expansion in Nebraska, as our crushing facilities are the closest in the U.S. to the California market. Crushing will create more feed and we are also in prime position to grow our livestock numbers. We can create money for our communities and keep those dollars circulating in our communities rather than sending them out of state.”
As for his overall optimism concerning opportunities for what lies ahead, Chvatal said with the proper balance of new thinking and traditional sound management techniques, the opportunities are almost limitless.
“The future for soybeans in Nebraska is very bright,” he said. “People still matter and relationships will always matter in Nebraska. It’ll be paramount to get a handle on and help organize all these opportunities to put them in a more palatable format for our producers to truly understand them all.
“If we continue to train and hire good people, the ag industry will thrive. Nebraska remains in a prime spot to grow and feed soybeans and export on top of all that.”
Other future challenges include driving ever-more efficiencies into growing operations, Robinson said.
“Efficiency and elimination of waste within farming operations will likely be the next big thing,” he said. “We are already seeing it with drone technology, soil moisture probes, irrigation telemetry, et cetera.”
Doubling down on current tools and techniques, as well as remaining open to what the future holds, has DeMers optimistic about the future of ag, one of Nebraska’s most foundational industries.
“As Nebraska agricultural continues to grow, The Combine looks to meet the demand on the innovation side. The Combine companies are constantly creating technology with the producer in mind, to help them better their business,” he said. “Producers continue to adapt to the changes in the market and what it demands from them. We see family farms adopting technological tools that help improve yields, reduce water usage, monitor fertilizer and understand moisture levels.
“The Nebraska ag ecosystem is special; we find ways to continuously improve ourselves. We are and will continue to be one of the leading states when it comes to agricultural output.”
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