The Digital Evolution of Agriculture is Already a Fact of Life on Farms Across the U.S.

Norman Mayersohn reported earlier this month at The New York Times Online that, “Of all the out-of-the-box products a Silicon Valley tech start-up could offer, Bear Flag Robotics may be delivering the most unexpected: plowed fields.

“The company is developing autonomous tractors, a goal that equipment companies like Case IH, John Deere and Kubota are chasing as well. But the business model of Bear Flag, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has a twist — it does not build the tractors. Instead, it adapts the sensors and actuators needed for driverless plowing to existing tractors produced by major manufacturers.

“That step is not as sci-fi as it might seem. From equipment automation to data collection and analysis, the digital evolution of agriculture is already a fact of life on farms across the United States.”

The Times article stated that, “Auto-steer systems, which use GPS receivers to keep rows straight and avoid gaps or overlap, are available for equipment ranging from tractors to harvest combines to sprayers with 100-foot-wide booms. Precision seeders and fertilizer systems can be satellite guided to accuracy of an inch or less.

“The difference: For the most part, those operations still depend on an operator at the controls.

“‘Autonomous operation will be a service in agriculture before it’s a product,’ said Igino Cafiero, Bear Flag’s chief executive during a break from his work in a test field of cilantro about 60 miles southeast of the company’s headquarters. The company’s niche is providing secondary tillage, deploying its equipment after a harvest is complete to prepare the fields for the next planting.”

Mayersohn noted that, “The drive to increase productivity is urgent in all phases of agriculture. Feeding a world population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 faces dire challenges, according to the summary of a United Nations report released in August. The effects of climate change — extreme weather, soil loss, migration pressures — will strain land and water resources, potentially disrupting food supplies.”

The New York Times article added that, “The benefits of automation scale down to some smaller growers as well. Penny Gritt Goff, the third-generation operating manager of Gritt’s Midway Greenhouse in Red House, W.Va., takes advantage of computerized monitoring to keep tabs on temperature, humidity, nutrient levels and other conditions for three acres of hydroponic greenhouses where lettuce grows in flowing water and tomatoes are raised in a bed of coconut husks.”

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