Advances in technology have fundamentally changed the way an array of long-established industries function, and agriculture is no exception.
Charles Holloway, an agricultural instructor at Sheridan College, said that technology is changing the skillset students need to develop to be successful as agricultural producers.
“The successful farms and ranches in the future are going to rely more and more on technology and less on physical exertion,” Holloway said.
He pointed to the rise of GIS and GPS mapping systems, which he said allow producers to monitor the effectiveness of every aspect of their operation and respond to problems quickly.
“The efficiency of an operation [utilizing GPS and GIS management systems] goes up several times,” Holloway said. “Good data lets you make informed decisions. So anytime you have data management systems, access to real-time information is critical. Updates about insect infestations or disease outbreaks that could potentially affect your operation — that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to separate the men from the boys in the future, and is already.”
AgTerra, a company based in Sheridan, designs hardware and software based around GIS mapping that agricultural producers can use to gather and organize data using cloud-based applications. Producers can also use the technology to map and monitor their crops. Alan Telck, AgTerra’s president, said the picture this information can provide is essential for agricultural producers
“Today, to compete, agricultural producers have to utilize technology,” Telck said. “If you’re going to understand your own operations and know what works best for you, [your processes have] to be measured.”
Telck said his company’s software can be accessed via tablets, computers or phones and allows farmers to delineate their plot of land on a GPS map and record data such as the crops growing there and the procedures used to manage them.
AgTerra’s software collects the information farmers input into a database that can be used to identify patterns and best practices. Companies that contract growers to produce certain crops can use the database to examine the production processes different growers are using and determine which processes are yielding the greatest returns. The companies can then advise their growers to adjust their processes based on what has proven to be most effective.
Telck said companies and processing facilities can also use this data to predict the size of the harvest from a given plot and use that information to determine how long they will have to run their factories to refine the crops and prepare accordingly.
AgTerra also produces hardware in the form of data loggers — sensors that can track the locations and quantities of resources that an agriculture operation is deploying. For example, a sensor can be attached to the flow sensor on a pesticide vehicle to record the amount and type of pesticide used, as well as the area treated. Telck said these sensors are used to ensure pesticides are being used efficiently and to verify pesticide treatments have been applied.
“A lot of contractors use the [data loggers] to document they actually did the job,” Telck said.
The importance of data monitoring can extend beyond the field for agricultural producers, too.
Dr. Ami Erickson, a biology and agricultural science instructor at Sheridan College, said the college has emphasized teaching students to consider how market forces are affecting agriculture. The college’s Mars Agriculture Center is equipped with a computer lab and ticker tape system, which allow students to track stock market and commodities prices. Erickson said understanding the market value of crops can help students who may go on to run an agriculture business plan what to grow in order to maximize the value of their land.
Holloway said, going forward, the lack of available agricultural labor is going to lead to technologies that automate and downsize agricultural operations.
“More and more of the technology is going to single-individual operation because of the lack of ag labor both in quality and quantity,” Holloway said. “It’s amazing the things that one person can do what used to take entire crews.”
As technology continues to remake the industry, the challenge for both students and seasoned veterans in agriculture will be to keep up.