Disrupted Agriculture – farming and IoT combine to beat food insecurity

Move over legacy farming – IoT is here

iDisrupted Commentary by guest contributor Lynne Slowey @lynslow

Being born and bred in Lincolnshire I have seen (and smelt) a lot of countryside, and cabbage was almost my middle name! But, having moved to London some 11 years ago the closest I now come to agriculture is Walthamstow’s weekly farmers market.

However, that distance doesn’t stop me from being super excited by what technology developments and Internet of Things could do for the working lives of farmers

IoT disrupted framing
Image: Cleantech


You may or may not know that farmers have an alarmingly high suicide rate. Farming is a 24/7 job. A lifestyle. There’s little work–life balance when your work is your life, and their work is absolutely crucial to all of us.

So it’s reassuring to see the options and opportunities technology could bring to farmers, to reduce the stress and burden of day-to-day farming activities, whilst still keeping them gainfully employed – especially when the pressure is on to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for high quality food for our growing population.

Think iBeacons, think GPS tracking, think drones, and driverless cars. Think big data, and IBM’s Watson, and global teamwork. Let me explain. . .

Little Bo Peep will no longer lose her sheep, if they are GPS monitored by Tile-style tags. Farmers will be able to keep track of their animals simply by glancing at their smartwatch or phone. Once the sheep is ready for market, they can simply scan the animal and remove the tag because, let’s face it, no one wants to eat a plastic Bluetooth chip with their Sunday lunch.

@JohnStraw, has already shared his thoughts on tracking animals using a FitBit style model which could cut hours of manual work and monitoring from a farmer’s day-to-day tasks. You’ll know the heart rate, movements, and temperature of your stock. If you notice any health issues the vet will have a complete picture of where that animal has been and what they’ve had access to, as well as all their vital statistics and health patterns.

Because we may as well kill two birds with one stone, if you are using year-round grazing, those tagged animals can also filter in information regarding weather patterns, the sun, the volume of rain etc. – data which can then help guide and predict potential issues for crops.

Got a big field to plough? Well Google are all over their driverless car, and Tesla with autopilot – and that technology can extend to tractors and combines. A nice simple square field of corn could easily be harvested by automation.

Problems with pests? Send in the drones – a quicker, cheaper and safer way of treating large fields of crops. This is something Japanese farmers have being doing in their rice fields for years, and Yamaha’s RMAX unmanned helicopter has just been cleared for use over farmland in the USA and Australia.

Then think about data, and using the processing power of Artificial Intelligence. It’s not just big data, it’s huge, gigantic data. Weather patterns, predictions, food shortages, illness epidemics (both animal and human), the sales figures of supermarkets, and diet changes are just a few things that can help guide where farmers should focus their efforts.

Throw in soil samples, water levels, and details from individual farms, plus a bit of analysis using AI, and find out exactly the crops and animals you would have the best success with at different times of the season.

Using this approach farmers could be linked to other agricultural experts across the globe, allowing them to understand the best rates and prices for their crops, where they could make more money, or simply just determine a fair rate for their produce.

There are also new incentives for farmers to make money through saving precious resources. SWIIM is once such company. Nicknamed the Airbnb for water, it encourages farmers to use water more sustainably, providing analysis and optimising the way farmers are using their water, and it helps them rent out their surplus water supplies to businesses in need.

There’s also talk of cutting out cows altogether, and 3D printing meat. I’m not sure I’m sold on this, but 3D printing technology can help farmers in other ways – for example spare parts for tractors and other useful equipment. Dr. Joshua Pearce has written a paper exploring the economic benefits of 3D printing for small farms, and reviews 3D printing for hand tools, food processing, animal management, water management, and hydroponics.

These elements of IoT are going to become more and more crucial as populations grow, incomes rise, and weather patterns become more extreme. We need to embrace technology to enable a more secure and sustainable source of food and fuel.

These digital solutions also allow a lifestyle change for farmers, with more focus on the analysis and less on the hands-on, giving farmers a better chance of a happier work-life balance. So it might also be worth making the farmhouse a connected home too. When you get in, the heating is on, the curtains drawn, and the kettle boiled. . . all via a click of a button from out in the field.

Thanks to IoT farmers can enter a new age, scientific but streamlined. By using technology their working lives can become easier. They will be maximising the chance to make a good living, helping a growing population have access to high quality food, while still being able to enjoy some time off.