Farm Bill, Robots, And Drones: What's The Future Of Farming?

Dec 6, 2018

From robots to education, agriculture stakeholders have different ideas about the future of farming.

The DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association recently hosted a forum with innovators in DeKalb. The Evening With Innovators was a TED-style program that included futuristic concepts -- and hardware.

"On the right-hand side is a robotic milker," said Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University. "Can you believe that we now have robots milking cows?"

Shearer focused on technology as a means of innovation. For another speaker, University of Illinois dean Kim Kidwell, innovation means education. She says teaching a new, diverse generation is essential to successful and lasting change.

"I worry about a few things," Kidwell said. "I worry about how we train the next generation, I worry about where our food supplies (are) gonna come from, I worry about what we're doing to the environment, I worry about feeding enough people."

She noted retaining these students is also a challenge.

"The Number One problem our companies talk about is workforce pipeline. In Illinois, in particular, this has been a huge problem," she said.

Schools pave a way for younger farmers to step into the industry – people like Levi Johnson, who's taking a precision agriculture class at Kishwaukee College. The certification program was approved by the state this past summer. He's one of the first five students to pursue this course. Johnson works as a research technician at Bayer, formally Monsanto.

"When I heard drones were coming out and being used, especially for research, there's some things that they're like, 'Oh we can use drones for this' and I thought absolutely not," Johnson said. "And that was last year, and this year I watched some very fancy drones do exactly what I said they were not going to be able to do."

Levi Johnson sits passenger in the 4-wheeler that he and his classmates outfit with precision technology.
Credit Sarah Jesmer

The students outfit a utility vehicle with GPS, a computer system, and automatic steering. With snow on the fields, students took to the parking lot to practice driving the 4-wheeler. The vehicle and its tools are meant to simulate the same systems they'd use with a combine on a field.

The goal of precision tools is to make farming more efficient and cost effective. The right data can inform the amount of irrigation needed based on the soil type, or illustrate when too much fertilizer has been used on one spot. Johnson and his classmates are learning how to gather and use this data. Johnson says when it comes to merging farming with technology, where there's a will, there's a way:

"If they want to do it, there's very little that will hold them back on that kind of stuff."

Steve Durin is an assistant agribusiness instructor. He said the learning curve among established farmers and students is still worth the returns in the long run. Durin said operators need to be their own IT team because time is money.

"And that's really what this class is all about," Durin said. "They get the students familiar with this equipment, but troubleshooting is a big component of it because if they can get it up and running themselves, they're able to operate that day."

The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is over 55. Johnson says he accepts that some say younger farmers and students are a critical part of sustaining the industry. New farmers in the Midwest face a unique set of disadvantages, according to some scientists. Karen Perry Stillerman is a strategist and analyst in the Food and Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She wrote a piece in July about how the Midwestern food system is failing, compared to other markets.

"The Midwest isn't producing all that much food, much less healthy food, and two, the Midwest farm system isn't using resources in a wise and sustainable way," she said.

Stillerman said the use of chemicals degrade the soil and cause runoff that harms the environment. She said the pressure on farmers to maximize productivity has made sustainability a lower priority. 

"The kinds of innovations that will be important in the future are going to be about risk reduction," Stillerman said. "Because farming is a really risky business and it always has been, but is getting riskier all the time."

She said farmers could prepare for possible disasters due to climate change, and they could diversify crops to make sure their "eggs [are] in more than one basket." 

Risks for farmers involve everything from the political climate, the economy, to mental illness. Producers are seeing lower returns on crops due to current trade wars. The bankruptcy rate is on the rise, as is the suicide rate among farmers.

"Most farmers I know really want to feed people and they want to be good stewards of the land," Stillerman said. "And the agriculture system that has developed, and that they're kind of trapped in, isn't helping them do either one of those things."

The future of farming takes many forms depending on who is asking. Legislative disagreements have caused the most recent Farm Bill to expire without a replacement. Lawmakers agreed at the end of November on an outline. They have until the new Congress begins in January to pass it.