Translating Food Technology

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Almost from its beginning, the story of American farming has been the story of lowering food costs for consumers by replacing increasingly scarce human labor with technology. First, it meant substituting literal horse power with internal-combustion horsepower in the early 20th century. In the early 21st century, it's been replacing the work of physically walking crop fields with viewing them remotely via aerial drone. For 2017, you can expect even more exponential leaps toward the increasingling technology-centric farm—perhaps no more aptly sympolized than by the unveiling of the first farmer-free tractor at this year's Husker Harvest Days held in mid September near Alda. Those technological improvements will continue to drive down costs of farm products or add value, or both.
Already, the level of technology on today's farms might astound those who still hold the imaged promoted by the slow-food and local-farms movements. That giant threshing machine you see along the highways cutting wheat, corn and soybeans every fall, now nearly the size of a small home, is already a satellite-navigated system of thousands of moving parts, less guided by the operator inside the climate-controlled cab than it is monitored by him, since it's likely being steered by a computer. The hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crops being processed through the combine are constantly monitored, their progress displayed on a computer terminal, alerting the operator to important measures, from the bushels per acre to the moisture level of the crop. Before it was even planted, the field it's harvesting may have been reviewed by satellite spectrum analysis in order to help choose the best combination of crop, seed variety, number of plants per square foot and needed fertilizer additions by region of the field—even by row. A computerized planter may have adjusted those factors on the fly, making real-time tweaks where the data dictated. Next might have followed a computer-guided pesticide sprayer that changes the quantity and type in areas of a field that are more disease-prone. Aerial drones may have flown low over thousands of acres to help the farmer spot any suprise increase in pests, disease or specific weeds without ever leaving his farm office, sending that data to a worker's cell phone or an unmanned vehicle to locate and kill the specific outbreak of bugs or weeds in the field.

That's all apparently just the beginning. The drive to further automate farming will only accelerate, according to experts. Here are trends that will continue to drive technological change in farming:

Increased demand for high-quality outputs. Today's drive away from commodity crops and toward value-added foods may not require technology, but technology will be the key to make their production cost-effective. The so-called Internet of Things is coming to agriculture as a result, demonstrating the added value of smart webs of connected and remotely controlled objects. One example: The holy grail of meat production known as transparency and traceability. A future interconnected web of objects from the cattle ranch to the meatcase could not only permit consumers to know where a cut of meat came from, but theoretically could even affect the production of that cut by placing market-of-one custom orders that only an interconnected system could execute efficiently enough to make it affordable.

New social and political priorities. If consumer dollars aren't necessarily driving demand toward high-tech, some of the socio-political priorities are. Modern tractors and farm trucks, for instance, use advanced diesel technology that has brought their emission of pollutants down to almost zero. Remote monitoring and data analysis guided by computer has also made an impact in improving the well-being of farm animals, even as pressure continues to cut back on the use of more traditional tools that ensure animal welfare, like antibiotic-based medications.

Changes in farm structure, practice and culture. On average, computing power doubles about every 12 to 18 months, according to conventional wisdom. That incessant improvement has left a lot of affordable computer capability available to harnass on the farm, says Wisconsin professor of biological systems engineering John Shutske. "Big Data" has arrived, creating a "virtual tsunami of data" to drive decision-making by a group who, in the course of just one generation, went from keeping little or no production records to collecting, analyzing and mining data on everything. That trend toward big data, coupled with the Internet of Things will make artificial intelligence available to assume simple decision-making for the farmer in areas like pest management, scheduling operations or optimizing animal health or crop health treatments and regimes.

Beyond that availability of tools, a change in attitude has also opened up young farmers to new ways of doing business. The "shared economy," for instance, has changed some farmers' way of thinking about equipment use, a traditional drain on farm economics. Farmers who used to be willing to spend today's equivalent of $500,000 on a large harvesting combine just to see it sit idle 95 percent of the year are instead open to software-based equipment-sharing arrangements like AirBNB that spread that cost of capital over many farms.

Biotechnology. Not simply the mechanical, but the bio-mechanical, will continue to revolutionize farm technology. The better understanding of genetics at a molecular level brought about by the GMO revolution has made farm production more economical by reducing the greatest remaining source of unpredictability: Living nature. Owing to biotechnology, plants and animals raised on tomorrow's farms will be more controllable and more reliable.

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