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New Technologies Can Lead Georgia’s Agriculture to New Heights

March 18, 2019

Dr. J. Scott Angle Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
R obots milking cows, droids pick­ing fruit and scouting pest invasions of peanut fields and weather fore­casting 10 times more accurate than current predictions are all about to find their way into Georgia’s fields and pastures. Driven by labor shortages, the desire to reduce costs and maximize profitability and de­crease agriculture’s footprint on the environment, agriculture is one of the last major industries where high technology has made inroads. Some areas like plant and animal genetics have changed significant­ly over the past 20 years. Georgia has one of the hardly envisioned a decade ago.

Many areas of agriculture have lagged behind other industries but this is changing at a pace un­seen in our lifetime. Whether its investment at the federal level through agencies like the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the state’s sup­port of the land grant universities or industries like AGCO in Duluth, we are rushing towards a future hardly envisioned a decade ago.

Many of you have heard of autonomous driv­ing tractors where many farm operations can be done with minimal operator assistance. However, that is just the start. Soon tractors will visualize plants through a 3D scanning process as they drive through the field. Over time, it will be possible to develop growth models that more precisely allow for fertilizer application, irrigation timing and even recommend the best time to harvest crops. The tractor becomes not just a machine of brute force, but now a delicate collector of data for more precise management of the crop and its environment. This technology is being developed collaboratively by Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.
Better weather forecasting is also possible with the use of “big data.” Blueberries are very sensitive to frost and freezing. Current forecasting when wrong is expensive. If a freeze is predicted the farmer de­ploys expensive protective mechanisms to protect the crop. If it does not freeze then the protective cost is wasted. If there is no frost in the forecast and one comes, an entire crop can be lost if the farmer doesn’t protect the blueberries. Through the use of “big data” to develop more accurate weather fore­casting, the benefits to farmers can be significant.
These changes are bringing about a significant shift in the labor force needed to manage the farm of the near future. Much of the drudgery of farm work will be done by machines, while humans will manage data, interpret forecasts and program ma­chines to grow the food. A Purdue University study of several years ago reported that universities are training only a fraction of the workforce needed to manage the future farm. High technology and agrarian lifestyle were not words often used togeth­er, but that is just around the corner. I hope young people thinking about careers and the training they need to achieve their goals will give agriculture a good and long look.
Georgia is blessed with rich soils, ample rainfall and a climate that can support excellent crop and animal production year-round. As a result, agricul­ture in Georgia continues to expand and I believe will be a breadbasket not just for the United States, but the world. With the ports on your coast, access to large population centers and world class univer­sities, it’s a great state in which to farm. But only with the development and use of new technologies can this vision be realized.

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