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About five years ago, David Wallace spent the summer on his family’s potato farm in the Skagit Valley area of Washington State. Wallace had grown up on the farm, but he left to pursue chemistry, eventually working as a data scientist. But he always felt a pull back to his roots.
During his visit, Wallace listened as his father complained about the farm’s irrigation systems. They were prone to errors, wasting huge amounts of water and time. Every time there was an issue with the flow rate or the center line, the crew would have to drive around the field to find the exact point of trouble and then figure out how to fix it. The main issue, the elder Wallace told his son, was that there was no way to see what was happening with the irrigation system remotely. After a quick search, Wallace discovered that there wasn’t a sufficient monitoring and control system available on the market. So, he made one. And just like that, FarmHQ was born.
The small unit attaches to a central point on the irrigation system and uses cloud-based software to monitor irrigation reels and pumps. Wallace spent weeks tinkering with his code before testing it out across his farm and with a few friends. Quickly, word spread, and other farms wanted in on the time-saving device. Now, FarmHQ is in its third year of development and used on about 30 farms across the Pacific Northwest, with plans to grow tenfold this year. Wallace never returned to his old data scientist job.
Technology such as FarmHQ aims to help farmers become more efficient, saving time and money. Wallace claims implementing his system can net up to a 1,500-percent return on investment over a season. “These systems pump anywhere from 250 to 400 gallons of water per minute over a very small area of land,” he says. “We can calculate directly how much pumping time and how much water is saved as a result of having our system on board. We also know very accurately how much driving time we’re saving farmers, because we know the location of each one of their pieces of equipment, and we know where their home base is. So each time they open up that app to check on that piece of equipment, we’ve essentially saved them a trip to the field.”
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Some of the technology embraced by farmers has a physical component, like FarmHQ. Others are simply software and apps that help collect the multitude of data that comes from farming, and it makes the process more collaborative. One such product is Agworld, essentially a management tool for farmers. With more than 11,000 active monthly users, Agworld collects and analyzes farm data—what you’re growing and when it was tilled, sprayed, irrigated and weeded. Then, you can share that information with anyone else who might need it. “We recently had three growers come on in Texas, and they were referred by an agronomist that they work with out of Australia,” says Zach Sheely, president of Agworld. Using his software, growers input their data into the app, and an agronomist is able to analyze the figures and make recommendations from the other side of the world.
With Agworld, the goal for Sheely was to find a way to simplify all of the inputs of information with which a farmer has to deal on a daily basis. Because, as any grower knows, no job exists in isolation. Whatever you do on a farm is done within the context of all the other work.
“If I’m irrigating a field, and I want to schedule the autonomous tractor to go through it to go mow, I need to know when I was irrigating. If it’s too wet, I’m going to actually create more problems for myself. I can get that tractor stack, I can create ruts, which then impact future irrigation’s ability to percolate through the soil structure,” Sheely says. So his software is a way to collect all of that data and present it to the farmer in a cohesive format. Agworld also works in tandem with other technology to do some predictive modeling, such as reading upcoming weather forecasts to predict temperature, humidity and wind, and give recommendations based on what it sees.
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There’s also tech that goes one step further. If Agworld is just an app, and FarmHQ is an app with a small physical element, what happens when you combine those kinds of systems? Well, you get a small farm that can be operated fully remotely.
Freight Farms is essentially a farm in a box, albeit a very large box. It’s a shipping container, to be precise. While not the traditional method of farming, contained growing spaces are increasingly popular in areas where geography or weather impact the growing season. “A large contingent of our farmers are in cold climates, whether that be Alaska, Norway, Sweden or Canada. But we also have a lot of farms that are in the Caribbean where space is limited. Or in the desert, we have farms in Egypt, we have farms in the Middle East,” says Marc Bliss, customer success manager for Freight Farms.
Every aspect of a Freight Farms container can be controlled through an app, so farmers can change lights, humidity, fertilizer and water with the tap of a finger. Bliss says the company is popular among small farmers who sell through local markets and groups such as schools or Boys and Girls clubs. The technology allows for a wide range of crops to grow in a small space and with minimal physical input, so more people can participate in the process.
This sort of technology “is absolutely the future of agriculture,” says Bliss. “It increases sustainability; it lowers the barrier to entry. And I think the most important part is that you can bring farms directly to the communities that are looking to be served.”
Despite the advantages involved, concerns are mounting as these technologies are adopted in a larger scope. Glenn Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, has studied the surveillance aspect of agriculture technology and how it impacts smallholder farms. Stone points out a few aspects of the agtech boom that could be cause for concern. Firstly, the potential impacts of the technology on smallholder farms simply isn’t known yet. But more worryingly, Stone notes that reliance on this kind of technology could result in the loss of traditional knowledge in some areas. “Some technologies just give new information for farmers to take into account; others completely appropriate the decision-making process,” Stone wrote to Modern Farmer in an email. “There is a deeply embedded idea in the developed world that peasants really need to be told how to farm… but agricultural decision-making processes have important—in fact, crucial—social components.”
Stone also worries about how technology might breed other technologies that all get tied and linked together. If a farmer uses an app to track the fertilizer application of their field, would that app work only with a specific brand of fertilizer? And then, do you also need to get the linked and branded sprayers and hoses and reels? What is the end point when it comes to technologies that are created for profit?
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But for younger farmers flocking to products such as Freight Farms, these technologies don’t represent a loss of knowledge. Instead, they’re viewed as a way to make farming more accessible to a wider group. “The software reduces a lot of the guesswork in farming,” says Bliss, making farming a viable career for people who might not have considered it before. “You can spend less time worrying about your crops, because you can monitor them from anywhere. You can get alerts if your tank is running low or if a light was supposed to turn on and didn’t. So, you know what’s going on in your farm at all times.”
This might be the real pull of farming tech. While farming at any scale will always be a tough job, there are ways to make it easier and more efficient. And for a younger generation, one that prizes a work-life balance, knowing that there are ways to monitor or automate farming functions could make the business more appealing.
“A lot of people have stayed away from farming because of lifestyle goals,” says Sheely, noting that raising a family or traveling are not always perfectly compatible with running a farm. “We’re going to have fewer people involved in farming, but probably higher skill levels within each individual. I think that’s where technology can make your life better. If you’re going to be part of farming, it can free up opportunities and allow you to have a better quality of life.”