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farming tech

Farming in 2020: 8 Tech Trends to Know

From driverless tractors to plant tattoos, learn about the hottest technology hitting farms in the coming year

Scott Bish

From driverless tractors and drones to plant data collection and even crop gene editing, technology is transforming the farming world. Whether you’re a professional farmer, a hobbyist, or just like learning about technology, it's useful to keep up with what’s new and its impact on the industry. Here are eight farm tech trends to know going into 2020.

1. Driverless Tractors
You’ve probably heard of driverless cars. The same idea is coming to farm work: Self-driving tractors deliver high torque at slow speeds for tasks from tilling to planting. Since these vehicles tackle otherwise manual, time-consuming chores currently handled by people, less labor can mean lower operating costs. Also, instead of larger vehicles, you can expect to see smaller tractors and agricultural robots working on jobs in “swarms,” according to the Illinois Farm Bureau, citing Scott Shearer, professor and chair of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University. Unlike current heavy tractor machinery, these smaller, lighter machines reduce soil compacting.

2. Drones
These unmanned flying machines aren’t just pricey toys. Farmers are using drones equipped with sensors and digital imaging technology. As drones soar over the land, farmers get a detailed picture of their fields and what issues they may need to address. For example, spotting unhealthy plants with drone footage can help farmers see where to add herbicide or fertilizer. Drone images can also show farmers overgrown areas of crops that need thinning out. Plus, according to FutureFarming, drones can also be used to plant seeds and spread pesticides.

3. Precision Agriculture
GPS helps us find our way. And it can be used on agricultural equipment, such as combine harvesters and crop dusters. Farmers can use GPS to find their machines’ exact location in a field and map out terrain, weather patterns, soil temperature, pH and nitrogen levels, moisture, and more. Together with satellite imagery, GPS data can determine how to best spread out resources like water, nutrients, fertilizers, and seeds, according to the U.S. Air Force.

4. Crop Gene Editing
Scientists are exploring how to enhance crops by adding and removing specific genes, meaning farmers will be able to turn specific traits on or off. An example of this is the gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. In an interview with the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences’ Ag Science Magazine, Yinong Yang, associate professor of plant pathology says CRISPR-Cas9  “holds promise for precision breeding of crops with many desirable traits, such as low levels of food allergens or toxins, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and efficient nitrogen and phosphorus utilization.” He also says, “These agronomic traits not only help reduce pesticide, fertilizer, and water usage, but also improve food quality and safety."

As science progresses, we can expect crop gene editing to happen faster and with greater precision.

5. Blockchain
Keeping track of our food matters. “Block” in the term blockchain refers to blocks, or digital pieces, of data all linked together. Blockchain allows companies to track info about their food–from produce to dairy to poultry–every step of the way through the supply chain. This provides clear sight into products’ origin and quality. For farmers, rather than having to track records from various sources, blockchain can simplify matters by providing a single place for information.

Blockchain offers a lot of potential in food safety, specifically. It’s helping farmers, manufacturers, and retailers handle health issues, such as breakouts of E. coli or salmonella, faster and more effectively, according to PrecisionAg.

6. Plant Tattoo Sensors
It’s not about making plants look cool. Plant tattoos are graphene-based sensors taped to a plant’s leaves. Graphene is made of carbon atoms linked in a honeycomb pattern that conducts electricity and heat, according to Successful Farming. When the plant leaves naturally produce water vapor, it affects the graphene’s production of electricity and heat. Based on this process, the graphene is able to capture detailed information, such as how long it takes for two types of corn plants to move water from their roots to their lower leaves and into their upper leaves. This means there is a potential to breed plants that use water more efficiently.

7. Hydroponic Gardening
With hydroponic gardening, farmers use specialized equipment in a covered, controlled environment where they can regulate the temperature, humidity, light, and air. This means environmental factors such as weather and pests are no longer a threat. The results are bigger crop yields and the ability to grow plants in places where they wouldn’t normally thrive, such as underground. A great example currently exists in London, where Growing Underground turned an old air-raid shelter below the city into an underground farm. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been implementing hydroponic farming in areas of the world that suffer from food shortages.

8. RFID Technology
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) refers to small electronic devices or “tags” that have a small chip and antenna and collect and store bytes of data. Farmers can place these little tags on the ears of cattle, horses, and pigs and used them to control breeding, feeding, and weighing. These RFID tags can also help prevent the spread of disease, according to Dairy Herd Management Magazine.
In 2020, we may see more growers benefitting from RFID applications. For example, bales of hay can be tagged, which notes a harvest date, which field the hay came from, the temperature, weight, and moisture levels of each bale according to AgriTech Tomorrow.