Solutions to America’s Labor, Environment Challenges are Growing on the Farm
Two of the biggest issues facing America right now, labor shortages and the environment, are already getting major, tech-centered solutions from the ag world.
“We’re just right at the cusp of some really interesting innovations as we begin to implement artificial intelligence and advanced sensors into the machines themselves,” said Curt Blades, senior vice president of ag services at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM). “Whether that’s a machine that identifies weeds and treats them specifically or identifies pests and deals with them on the fly, we’re on the forefront of some really great technology that farmers will begin to see in their fields within the next year or two.”
With continued development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, sensor technologies, digital miniaturization and increased electrification in the tech space, more and more of those technologies are finding their way to the field. That is allowing farmers to tackle some of the environmental challenges the world is facing.
The environmental advantage comes from GPS technologies, that drive a tractor or combine more accurately, meaning the work gets done more quickly and the engine gets turned off sooner. Precision application technologies, can significantly reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides applied to crops by directing them only to the plants they are intended for, and not other plants or the bare ground in between rows.
“It makes sense for a farmer financially, but it also has a societal gain as there are fewer inputs involved,” Blades explained. “And that’s ultimately very good for the environment as well as the farmer.”
The other challenge facing America, and farmers especially, is the tight labor market. While labor shortages may be relatively new to the American economy at large, a combination of political and economic pressures have made this a challenge for farmers for more than two decades. The most impacted segment of the ag economy? Specialty crops.
“’Specialty crop’ is a pretty broad term, but it encompasses a number of things, including fruits and vegetables,” said Austin Gellings, manager of ag services at AEM, who focuses on specialty crop issues. “You’ve got trees, flowers, and even aquaculture, so when we talk about ‘specialty crops’ it’s a very broad term.”
While ‘specialty crop’ is a very broad term, they frequently share one main commonality: Human labor.
“The reason there hasn’t been much mechanization in this market is because specialty crops are delicate. What you ultimately harvest is what the consumer ends up buying and seeing in the store, and most people don’t want to buy damaged produce,” Gellings continued. “With specialty crops, you have to be delicate in the way you handle it, making mechanization more difficult.”
However, as the number of farm hands willing to maintain, handle and harvest produce continues to dwindle, the need for machines that can handle these delicate crops and get them out of the field and into the grocery store is growing significantly. There is also an environmental benefit here as well, as more mechanization for specialty crops mean fewer tons of produce are left to rot in fields.
“It’s very labor-intensive now. But one machine can do, on a per-hour basis, what 20 people are capable of doing,” Gellings explained. “So being mechanized not only allows you to do more, to produce more, it also helps eliminate food waste in the fields because we’re able to get food out of there when it needs to get out of there.”
“It’s amazing, the amount of technology that’s built into a tractor, combine, sprayer or into a seeder,” Blades said. “Some of the most high-tech, data-intensive applications in technology today are happening in agriculture, and I encourage everyone to take a look because it’s really exciting to see what the future holds for this industry.”
About the Association of Equipment Manufacturers
AEM is the North America-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide. The equipment manufacturing industry in the United States supports 2.8 million jobs and contributes roughly $288 billion to the economy every year.