Agriculture 4.0: How digital farming is revolutionizing the future of food

The next step in feeding the world's rapidly growing population involves self-driving tractors, precision farming, and Internet of Things sensors to quantify agriculture in vast new ways.
Written by Teena Maddox, Contributor
Image: abadonian/iStock

This article was originally published as a TechRepublic cover story.

In Tennessee, the owners of a farm dating back to the mid-1800s are changing how they grow food in dramatic ways. Drones, satellite imagery, and precision farming are part of the technology being used to improve costs, yield, and other key factors at the 2,500-acre Crafton Farms in Portland, TN.


Technology is changing the world, and farming is catching up. The introduction of everything from automated farm equipment to a wide array of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that measure soil moisture and drones that keep track of crops have changed the business of agriculture. Some experts even call this movement "Agriculture 4.0"--a term used by the World Government Summit.

A digital farm is more efficient and sustainable than its counterparts of the past. On a smart, digital farm, crops are likely grown using precision agriculture, tractors might be self-driving, the harvest could be determined by digital imagery of the fields, and the farmer is typically working with an agronomist to provide technology know-how.

Some of the places leading the revolution include:

  • At Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, the Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE) is constantly assessing better ways to farm to increase yields and improve efficiency, with sensors collecting 1.4 petabytes of data daily.
  • Land O'Lakes is sending out technology specialists from its subsidiary, WinField United, to show co-ops such as Crafton Farms in Tennessee better ways of farming.
  • Indoor farms such as Plenty in San Francisco and Jones Food in Europe are farming on vertical racks in massive indoor facilities that significantly reduce the carbon footprint needed to grow food.

Feeding 9 billion people

With more than 9 billion people predicted to populate the planet by 2050, finding better and smarter ways to grow food is essential.

Patrick Smoker, department head and senior director of IT for the colleges of Agriculture, Information Technology and Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University, said, "Our bottom line really is to feed the world. To do that, to feed an estimated nine billion people by 2050, we have to significantly increase our productivity in terms of food generation."

At Purdue, that means finding solutions that increase productivity for farmers.

"Like in many other vertical markets, technology plays a big role," Smoker said. "These technologies, if you think about if you're measuring any observable trait of a plant, we call that phenomics, how do you do that? You do it with sensors of all types. You do it with everything from handheld devices that measure the color in a plant to UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that fly over and take LIDAR and hyperspectral images because those spectrums of color provide information."


Watch Teena Maddox tour Purdue University's Agronomy Center for Research and Education in West Lafayette, IN, and Crafton Farms in Portland, TN.

The role of big data in farming

At Purdue, on a 1,408-acre research farm, IoT sensors assess what the plants are revealing by their molecular responses and how it impacts growth and color.

"Our job is to understand what every input, whether that's water, fertilization, the soil types, etc., whatever input there is, we need to know what its impact has on the plant, both in terms of nutritional value because we've got to increase the nutritional value of the same amount of biomass than we have now if we're gonna feed the world," Smoker said.


Purdue University in Lafayette, IN.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

He added, "If you put all that together in two specific areas, there's the farm management side, which uses technology to help farmers make informed decisions and management decisions in terms of producing high yields with low input, all the way to research, which means you're collecting, analyzing, visualizing, modeling, and all the compute that has to be behind that.

SEE: The future of food (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

"We're talking about big data, connected to everything, just like our consumer market. Our refrigerators, our light bulbs, etc., are all connected today, and the same is true for farm implements and even the plants themselves will one day be connected in some way in terms of embedded sensors or telling their story through imagery or any other one of a thousand different phenomic observations. That's the whole of what we're trying to do, and the technology plays many roles in that," Smoker said.

One of the first things Purdue had to do was install Wi-Fi connectivity across the 1,408 acres of fields in order to collect the data. So Purdue worked with Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, to understand the challenges and figure out how to engineer a solution at that scale.


Test fields at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education at Purdue University.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

But it was necessary to have the Wi-Fi in place for vehicles with sensors, such as ACRE's PhenoRover. "We're working on that being autonomous, but right now it's a manned vehicle and you're collecting all that data, and if we want to send that real time to compute resources, as an example, you gotta have connectivity to do that," Smoker explained.

SEE: Glossary: Smart farming

"And so imagine a machine running over rows and taking in all that data and then pushing it somewhere, the compute happens automatically, creates us a stream of data and it goes through all its algorithms, its data transformation and at the end, the researcher has visualized data or modeled data waiting for them...so it's really about timeliness of data collection and an entire stream of transport, translation, and consumption of data," Smoker said.

How satellite imagery and drones are used on a farm

Land O'Lakes teaches its co-op farmers to use WinField United's Answer Plot system, which serves as a data warehouse for crop information. The R7 tool that is part of the system collects data from 200 specific fields around the US in order to provide data on which hybrid crops will do best in a given area.

Crafton Farms uses this satellite technology to improve cost efficiency.

Austin Crafton is the one who spearheaded having his dad's farm use satellite imagery. He said his family has been farming the same fields since the mid-1800s, but they were doing it in similar ways as their ancestors until the new technology was added.

The way that the Crafton family decided to add technology was fairly traditional--Austin begged his dad to try something new. Now that neighboring farmers see the technology improving profits for the Craftons, they're considering it as well, Austin said.

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Andrew Laney, senior technology manager lead for WinField and Land O'Lakes, said that type of response is common in farming. Farming is a traditional industry, and farmers are loathe to change the way they manage their crops, but once they see a neighbor doing something that works, they're much more likely to adopt the same technique.

At Crafton Farms, Austin, who runs the farm with his dad, Johnny Crafton, sits down with a cup of coffee in the morning and looks at his iPad to review satellite imagery to see which fields need attention that day; areas with damage are highlighted on the imagery. With more than 40 fields, it would be impossible to go over every row of every field each day, but by pinpointing which fields might have problems, Crafton can narrow it down to a handful to visit.

"So, if you're looking at it from a satellite image, you've got a red spot in the middle of that field, and you can track yourself and make sure that you're in that particular spot in the field. Then, the agronomy takes over," Laney said.

In the past, farms had to send scouts to look at every field, which still didn't show what was going on in the midst of a huge field.


Technology in place at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education at Purdue University.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

Once a problem is identified, the farmer can determine whether to try to repair the damage, which could be caused from too much rain, or assume the area is a loss and stop spending money on it. Since fertilizer is expensive, it's better to avoid spending money on a field that isn't going to produce a healthy crop.

"If we know a field is not going to meet production costs, we can pull back a little bit on spending and tailor that to whatever we think the field is going to make," Laney said.

Comparing current fields to those of previous years allows for more accurate data analysis as well.

Drones come in handy when farmers need to see the field in its entirety without walking the distance.

SEE: Glossary: Smart farming

"For example, if one of these fields is 200 acres, and walking through head-high or chest-high corn is hard and at that time of year it is really hot, that's where a drone starts making you a lot more efficient," Laney said. "If you know this field has a problem, and you know it's in the back part of the field and you don't really want to walk to the back side of it, you could take a drone, fly out there, get a snapshot of what's going on, and look at it really close. If it's something you can tell from the snapshot, you don't really have to walk out there. It's just making everybody more efficient."

The benefit of precision agriculture

Technology such as crop modeling is used for precision agriculture. WinField began offering a crop model in 2018 that uses remote sensing. The farmer simply plugs in information such as the soil type, how much fertilizer was used, and what day it was planted. The software models the crop and gives the farmer information on when to expect the crop to be at a particular growth stage, and what the expected yield will be, Laney said.

This type of technology can reduce costs by $15 to $20 an acre, which is significant when a farmer, such as the Craftons, are working with thousands of acres.


Farm equipment at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education at Purdue University.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

While it's easy math, it's still difficult to get some farmers to adopt new technology. "You have to take the technology out to them, and you show it to them and a lot of times you'll get pushback because it's different from the way they've always done it," Laney said.

SEE: The future of food (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

"One of the technologies that pretty much most farmers use now that was kind of foreign 15-20 years ago was grid sampling. Soil sampling on a grid instead of going out and taking one sample of a hundred acre field, and that representing what fertilizer you should put down. Now they'll take a GPS and they'll put a grid on the field and they'll pull from individual points. So, you'll have roughly 30 to 40 samples on a hundred acre field," he explained.

Now farmers plug that info into software that gives them info on how much fertilizer is needed for a particular field, he said.

IoT sensors in the field

The IoT sensors at Purdue are used for collecting the aforementioned big data to create better plants.

"We use a lot of sensors in the field. So we'll record the typical things that a weather station at an airport might record, like air temperature, wind speed, rainfall, but we also record the amount of solar energy that we're receiving from the sun because the sun is the engine of photosynthesis," Jim Beaty, superintendent of the Purdue Agronomy Center, said. "We'll come out and record the photosynthetic activity of individual plants. We want to create plants that are very efficient in capturing that solar energy and turning it into traits that we're interested in."


Jim Beaty (right), superintendent of the Purdue Agronomy Center, doing a tour of his facility.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

Research on improving crop production and more at Purdue

At Purdue University, the Agronomy Center for Research and Education has a farm for testing that serves as an outdoor laboratory and research facility. The team of researchers study genetics and genomics as well as crop production and environmental research.

The addition of technology has accelerated production agriculture in the last few years, according to Beaty.

SEE: Glossary: Smart farming

"We're kind of entering a new phase where a lot of the technology is going into the genetics of the plants. What can we do to improve crops genetically? And in order to do that we're also utilizing a lot of other technology like GPS to record yields in fields, or where we make treatments [to improve a crop]. And then on the research side of that, we're using that technology to help us identify plants that have value to the plant breeders so that we can develop useful traits in plants more quickly," Beaty explained.


Testing variables in plant growth at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education at Purdue University.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

Purdue's test farm is a unique location because, Beaty said, "this particular farm was selected because it's situated right where the great hardwood forest that stretched from here to the Atlantic Ocean met the Grand Prairie. The Grand Prairie is a tall grassy ecology that stretched from here all the way through Nebraska up to Saskatchewan, Canada, and around the Ozarks to Texas. So two completely different ecologies came together at this location and because of that, our soils are very different on one side of the farm versus the other, whether they were developed under the leaf litter of a forest or developed under the sod of a prairie."

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Beaty said, "We're using technology to improve the efficiency of agriculture, the accuracy, the safety of the food supply that comes out. We now have recording instruments and assisted steering planting. We can record where we plant items, where we put on pesticides. We can prove where we shouldn't have put on pesticides with our recording devices. We can use that technology to create a better record for our agriculture production, and we're really hoping that for the consumers that want to know where their food is coming from, that we can create a better path on this is where your food came from all the way back to the field."

How drones lead to smarter farming

"As an agronomist, I'm interested in the plants that may have the most value for me," Beaty said. "If I have 10,000 plants in the field in my breeding program, I could have a lot of people out there taking notes every day or once a week, but if I use instruments to help me identify how plants are growing and surviving and how healthy they are, I can use a recording device to do that."

"I don't care how that device goes through the field. In other words, a student might have a selfie stick with a recording device on the end of a selfie stick, walking over each individual plant, or we might have a device flying over the fields like a drone or an unmanned aerial vehicle. We could have recording devices on a wheeled device that goes up and over the crops. We could have instruments on a Cessna or a satellite. We can collect the data in a lot of ways. We're working with the engineers at Purdue to help us determine the most efficient and the best way that we can collect our data," he explained.

Increased crop yields and reducing costs are key for farmers to buy into tech

The way to get farmers to buy into this technology is to make it worth their while, and increasing crop yields and reducing costs are key ways to get their attention.

Beaty said, "You always have to have yield, but a lot of the traits that we may be looking for may be value-added traits. We may be able to improve the vitamin level of a plant that a company's interested in. We've worked on modifying the starch in an individual corn plant so that maybe when there was processing it made a better product for the processor. We're always trying to create value."


The barn at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education at Purdue University.

Image: Derek Poore/TechRepublic

Smoker concurred, and said, "We have to show value. Although any given farmer may be resistant to change because he's got a known practice that produces a known result, the value proposition there is lowering their costs of inputs, increasing their outputs, decreasing labor, or increasing the value of their product."

Beaty said, "The great thing about the university system in America is we're trying to use unbiased research, science to help advance that technology and prove that it's more productive and safe. Society will always have to answer those questions: Is it safe? Is it moral? Does it have value?"

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