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Amid technology worries, farm sector still eyes its potential

USDA's Jacobs-Young says U.S. is slipping in its research funding

Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for research, envisions precision technology helping farmers apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides as they are needed.
Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for research, envisions precision technology helping farmers apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides as they are needed. (Tom Witham, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

If GPS-guided tractors led the previous revolution in agriculture, the next generation of farming is likely to be marked by unmanned drones with onboard sensors that can spot weeds and decide when and how much herbicide to spray to control their growth. 

“We are thinking about technologies like drones, the integration of drones in a production facility that can spot out the weeds and where you specifically need to treat,” said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the Agriculture Department. 

Such technologies, collectively known as precision agriculture, would allow farmers “to reduce the amount of inputs, and it allows them to reduce the cost, and environmentally it allows us to minimize the amount of treatment that’s needed,” Jacobs-Young, who is also the department’s chief scientist, said in an interview.  

The benefits of such technologies in combination with artificial intelligence-enabled tools, which combine vast quantities of sensor and satellite data on weather, water and soil conditions, can be presented on mobile phones and help small- and medium-sized farmers cut costs while boosting output, Jacobs-Young and other experts said. 

Lawmakers spend so much time fretting over the risks technology poses in areas like data privacy, homeland security, children’s health and even entrepreneurship that it may obscure the reality in some parts of the economy, including agriculture, a sector where many people are still trying to catch up to what many urban Americans take for granted.

But as Congress takes up the quinquennial farm bill, lawmakers including Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill., and others have been pressing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Jacobs-Young and other officials on funding and progress on precision agriculture efforts. 

The University of Nebraska, for example, is working on a project funded through a grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop an “intelligent and scalable unmanned aerial application solution for site-specific weed management.” 

According to the university’s grant proposal, the goal is to develop a drone-based onboard sensing and decision-making system that generates a prescription map for herbicide application that can be further refined based on feedback from users. 

Jacobs-Young said AI-based predictive tools using data from satellites also would help ranchers. 

“Our goal is to be able to predict drought, to be able to predict how much water California, for example, is going to have based on the snow melt,” Jacobs-Young said. “And be able to predict how much grass a ranch is going to have for grazing and things that help producers be more economically viable.”

Precision agriculture also is being deployed in greenhouse settings to tailor plants to consumer tastes, said Saharah Moon Chapotin, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit that promotes public-private partnerships for research. 

The organization receives funding through the farm bill with a requirement that such funds be matched through private partnerships. 

A group called the Precision Indoor Plants Consortium is “attempting to give plants precisely what they need to grow in optimal settings for optimal efficiency, and to provide the optimal product that the consumer wants,” Chapotin said in an interview. 

“You can think about micro-greens grown in a greenhouse and giving them just what they need in terms of inputs and also having the right genetics so that the bitterness is reduced.”

Reducing risk, cutting costs

AI precision tools also are being used to treat specific animals for diseases as opposed to a whole herd, Chapotin said. 

The group is working with a researcher at Kansas State University to develop models using machine learning to determine the risk for cattle that can develop bovine respiratory disease, Chapotin said in an interview. 

“This is a disease that impacts cattle and it’s treated through prophylaxis, so you want to give the medicine before you get the problem,” Chapotin said. “But you only treat those that are most at risk of the disease.” 

The predictive tool would help ranchers identify animals at risk and head off the disease that affects about 20 percent of cattle and costs “producers hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Chapotin said. 

Michael Langemeier, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said the precision technologies based on internet connectivity can work in remote, rural areas only if farmers and ranchers have high-speed broadband, similar to what Americans in big cities expect for entertainment and shopping. 

Recognizing the uneven access to high-speed internet across the country, Congress appropriated $62.5 billion in a 2021 law.  The Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications Information Administration are in charge of disbursing the federal dollars through grants to expand internet access. 

A 2020 study by the global consulting firm McKinsey forecast that increased agricultural productivity enabled by artificial intelligence technologies could add $500 billion to the world’s GDP by 2030. “Without a solid connectivity infrastructure, however, none of this is possible,” the study said. 

The U.S. agriculture sector is a pioneer in the use of technology, but McKinsey said only one-quarter of farms use connected devices to access data.

Langemeier said another element of precision agriculture, known as variable rate technology, recognizes that a single crop field can have different needs for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. 

“We don’t need to necessarily apply the same herbicide across the entire field,” he said, adding that such precision applications heavily depend on good internet and broadband access. And in fields, where there are fewer obstacles than a road, autonomous self-driving tractors could be next, he said. 

Jacobs-Young said broadband access can potentially attract people to rural areas, an outcome that could dovetail with at least one lobbying effort on the farm bill.

The National Young Farmers Coalition made a concerted effort in early March to persuade lawmakers to use the 2023 farm bill to give their generation easier access to land. The group has a “One Million Acres for the Future Campaign” calling for aid for community-led efforts to protect land from development and keep it in the hands of growers, expand access to credit for young farmers and farmers of color, and to develop incentives for landowners to give preference to young and minority producers. 

For Jacobs-Young, the U.S. has slipped in the federal, state and nongovernment sources of funds for agricultural research as Brazil, China and India move forward. U.S. investment fell to about $5 billion in 2020 from about $7.5 billion in 2000, according to data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. 

“We’re not on par with our competitive colleagues in terms of investments in public agricultural research,” Jacobs-Young said. 

The USDA’s budget document for fiscal 2024 shows a request for $4.2 billion for research, education and economics, up from $3.9 billion enacted in fiscal 2023.

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