City dwellers tend to think of the high-tech revolution as primarily an urban phenomenon–hip office workers thumb-typing messages to each other on their pagers while standing in line for lattes, for example.
But the countryside is well on its way to becoming as high-tech as the city, as new technologies relentlessly transform agriculture into something new: cyberfarming.
Cyberfarmers use high-tech tools to: gather detailed data on every square metre of their land, select and plant their crops, monitor conditions throughout the growing process, apply precise amounts of water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides as needed, and harvest the results at precisely the right time.
Take, for example, the King Family Farms, a 50-acre vineyard in the Okanagan valley owned by brothers Don and Rod King. Intel Research and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have installed a wireless sensor network there that measures air temperatures all over the vineyard.
The sensors, or motes, are about the size of a deck of cards, and consist of a sensor board, a radio processor and two AA batteries. Radio signals hop from one mote to the next, guided by software that selects the best transmission routes, until they reach a PC in the vineyard manager’s office.
Temperatures can vary widely even within a small vineyard. For example, low-lying areas collect cold air which flows down hillsides like water, placing certain vines at more risk of frost damage than others. The motes help the vineyard manager target the at-risk vines for frost-damage prevention methods such as misting, so he doesn’t waste precious water on plants that aren’t at risk.
Monitoring air temperatures throughout the season will also help the Kings pick their grapes at exactly the right moment, because they’ll know when the vines have had the optimum number of high- and low-temperature days. It will also help them know when grapes have undergone the cold temperatures necessary for the making of icewine. The scientists hope to add additional motes that measure light, humidity and other factors.
Another example of the advantages of cyberfarming comes from a recent test in Manitoba, in which wireless sensors in the ground revealed to participating potato farmers that a three-inch rain, which had caused them to back off on their irrigation, had not been captured by the soil. The farmers resumed irrigating. Neighboring farmers who were not part of the research project didn’t resume irrigating until several days later—and suffered a 30-percent reduction in yield.
There are now tractor-mounted soil samplers that measure soil fertility at a rate of 25 times per second, allowing farmers to tailor fertilizer application to specific areas. Yield sensors can measure moisture, protein and oil content of grain as it is harvested, allowing farmers to segregate out the grain that will fetch the best price.
German researchers have developed a prototype system that ensures herbicide is applied only where weeds are actually growing, instead of across an entire field. Digital cameras on a boom across the front of the tractor photograph the plant canopy; a computer compares the images to a database of weed images, and if it recognizes a weed, opens the appropriate nozzle on the sprayer at the rear of the tractor to spray that weed.
One vital component of the cyberfarming future is already in widespread use. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems have made tractor and combine auto-pilots practical, resulting in straighter rows and no wasteful overlapping. We’ll probably soon start to see completely automated, driverless farm machines, although safety concerns may keep them from widespread use.
Combined with satellite images of fields, data from wireless sensors, aerial photography and other methods of gathering precise data about a farm’s microclimates, topography and varying soils, GPS will allow cyberfarmers to plant a patchwork of crops that take the best possible advantage of their farms’ characteristics. They’ll always know exactly where each crop is and can apply any necessary water, fertilizer, or herbicides or pesticides to it without affecting other crops growing in nearby patches.
This, in turn, allows farmers to grow crops to order, pre-selling their crops instead of simply planting and hoping for good prices when they harvest. One farmer in Illinois I read about sells more than 80 percent of his crop before he plants. He typically plants 18 or 20 different varieties of crops, ranging from a soybean Burger King uses to make oil for frying French fries to a special high-protein corn for animal feed.
As farmers begin collecting more and more data about their farms, they can begin pooling that data to the benefit of all. An online database of such information would be invaluable to farmers all over the world who face similar conditions.
Today, cyberfarmers are cutting edge. In the not-too-distant future, they’re going to be mainstream–because they may be the only ones who are still in business.