Future of Food

Future Ag Is Smarter

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Case IH and sister company, New Holland, are building driverless grain carts guided by path planning systems. (Provided by Raven Industries)

The future is smart farming. Smarter, really. Data, the grease of smart machines. Connected machines. Connected to tablets and smartphones. Artificial intelligence dialing up productivity. Cameras as eyes, digitized images giving them vision. Sensors, the central nervous system managing crops spring to fall.

Technology has always played an integral role on the farm. In the years ahead, farmers will consume it by the bushel to address challenges ranging from labor shortages to meeting market demands, and to better decipher the cropping/equipment systems they manage.

"We're so data rich, and we're so information poor," observes Matt Danner, who farms in western Iowa, near Templeton. "We plant across [multiple] farms, [many] moisture levels, different heat units, elevations, and the test weights are all different. Tell me something about all that. Tell me five things about our hybrids that I can use." Danner hunts for data clean of extraneous garbage. "Do we need more granularity?" he asks. "Or, do we need smaller bits of clean data to create a better picture?"

A picture that sorts the productive regions in a field from areas that aren't as productive -- in short, a system with a bias for high production that is also sustainable.

"When I think of sustainability, I think of the classic thing: leaving the soil better than when you found it," says Jim Chambers, vice president and general manager of the global ag business at Trimble. "[So as] you're better managing [costs and expectations] in the low-production zones, you're also better able to maximize production in high-producing areas of the field. Net, you see an overall increase in yields across the field."


In 1930, the world population was 2 billion people. Today, it's 8-plus billion. By 2050, the International Monetary Fund projects 9.7 billion people.

That future begs the question: Can farmers feed everyone? History would answer, "Yes."

Corn hybrids are 100 years old, first planted in 1922. Average corn yields per acre in the U.S. knocked around 20 or 30 bushels until the middle and late 1940s as hybrid corn became widely available. Corn production in 1930 totaled 1.757 billion bushels from 85.5 million acres. Average annual yields didn't rise consistently past 100 bushels until the late 1970s. Thanks to advances in crop genetics, crop protection and fertilizer and equipment technology, the average corn yield in 2022 was 173 bushels per acre, with total output of 13.7 billion bushels on 79 million acres.

There is little reason to expect upward yield trends will end. "Think of the spraying or tillage or planting," Trimble's Chambers says. "If we're able to monitor what's going on in real time, help the farmer make adjustments, share data in real time with their agronomist and their trusted partners, respond faster to needs, this is the value that [machine] connectivity can bring."


The workhorse 1935 Oliver 18-28 produced 18 hp at the drawbar. It was 2WD, hand-cranked to start, and the operator sat in the open air and weather. Today, farmers kick the tires of driverless tractors and spreaders, spray weeds only where weeds are growing, deploy cameras and sensors to unravel production mysteries, and contemplate a time only seven years from today, as John Deere is pledging, when operators will manage a complete, fully autonomous production system: tractors, planters, sprayers, combines, grain carts and tillage. Case IH and sister company, New Holland, are demonstrating the ability to command grain carts pulled by driverless tractor to the side of combines -- an example of path planning that will one day transform every corner of farm logistics. Deere's newest innovation, ExactShot, applies starter fertilizer individually to the seeds, hinting at an ability not too far off to manage plants not by acres and rows, but one plant at a time -- 4 trillion corn plants in a typical crop year. Only last year, Deere made a $16-million investment in InnerPlant, a startup company with a technology that allows plant leaves under certain stresses to fluoresce (shine or glow brightly) to signal trouble. Jorge Heraud, vice president automation and autonomy, and former CEO of Blue River Technology, purchased by Deere in 2017, says, "We think our machines are going to see [plants] that are fluorescing and saying, 'Hey, this plant is under fungal attack.' This technology is very specific. It can tell you if it's an insect, or if it's in nutrient stress, or if it's being attacked by a disease."


Taylor Nelson farms near South Sioux City, Nebraska, with his father, Doug. The farm runs on Deere equipment, and Nelson is the tech go-to guy on Nelson Farms. "Technology seems to be driving us toward not using less as a whole but putting product where it can be most useful. We want to be more efficient, use the least amount of inputs on the least amount of land to generate the most bushels."

His challenge is sorting through technologies. Is it worthwhile to run Deere's See & Spray split tanks for broadcast and spot treatments, but also complicate field logistics? "If we invest more in a machine or a larger machine, or make a change in our configuration, we want to be getting more done per machine hour and use less resources, whether that's man-hours or fuel, or whatever else." On the other hand, "How many decision points can we really handle? I think that you might have some interesting insight [from data collection], but you're probably still going to make a lot of decisions that are much broader than down to the individual plant."


The ability to see the health of an individual plant does not fix one of the ultimate challenges to a highly evolved production agriculture: human resistance to change, to farm in a different way. From that lowly 1935 Oliver to today's 699-hp Steiger, farming is typically evidence-based: "I'll try this when you show me why." Change takes time.

The February 2023 report "Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms," from USDA's Economic Research Service, documents trends in digital adoption between 1996 and 2019. Here are three observations from the report:

-- Auto-steer guidance systems were used on only 5.3% of planted corn acres in 2001. By 2016 it was 58%.

-- Adoption rates vary. For example, 7% of farms with total cropland less than 200 acres had an operator who adopted yield maps. But, 50% of corn farms with total cropland greater than 1,725 acres had an operator who adopted yield maps. "Nonadoption [of technology] tends to be correlated with smaller farm sizes, lower crop yields, less use of crop-management recommendations and limited employment of technical or consultant services," the authors write.

-- On the largest farms, the adoption rate for guidance was 73% for corn in 2016, 82% for winter wheat in 2017, 68% for soybeans in 2018 and 67% for cotton in 2019.

The report's authors believe adoption of technology will gradually become mainstream. "Much has already been written on digital divides between operators who are technologically savvy and those who are not. The latter group may increasingly miss opportunities [for digitally facilitated] improvements to farm performance ... However, such divides may somewhat lessen over time as younger generations, increasingly digital natives who are technologically savvy, displace older generations in the agricultural workforce."

Beyond technology adoption rates is another challenge to future farmers: Mother Nature.

David Hula, Charles City, Virginia, is well-known for his ability to change conventional wisdom. He grew an irrigated corn yield record of 616.195 bushels in the 2019 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest -- the most ever -- and 602.17 bushels irrigated in the 2021 yield contest.

Assuming, Progressive Farmer asked Hula, the national corn yield trend rises about 2 bushels per year, what might disrupt that trend? "No one has ever asked me that question," Hula says. "It's always, how do we get yields higher?" Three impediments are at issue.

-- Disease. Corn tar spot is a newer fungus found in the U.S., and it can be a yield killer. There is research that finds yield losses in severely infected fields of 60 bushels per acre.

-- Climate change. Climate does change, Hula says (not to be confused with global cooling or global warming). Climate will challenge growers to adapt. Hula is seeing a yield decline in his small-grain crops. He attributes it to warmer-than-normal springs followed by a final shot of cold or freezing weather. The crop starts to develop, stops, perhaps is damaged by the freeze then continues for the remainder of the growing season as the temperature increases again.

-- Water. Hula will not get 600-bushel yields without irrigation. The full run of the James River flows right out his back door. What goes into the James affects the Chesapeake Bay, and what affects the Bay brings new water-use regulations.

Stuart Sanderson, of Henderson Farms, Madison, Alabama, offers a take on smart farming. Can it be applied in the moment?

"The biggest challenge we have is not the data itself," he says. "But, it is managing, analyzing and reacting to data with real-time feedback."

Can he address today the anomalies he finds in his fields? Sanderson says yes. But, it's not always earth-shattering stuff. "We can make changes in irrigation, reduce water where we see [nitrogen] has leached from overapplying water. In essence, we can increase bushels."

And, it might just be turning the water off.


-- Follow Dan on Twitter @DMillerPF


Dan Miller