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Mapping the Era of Sustainable Sustenance


Precision Agriculture's Next Chapter

Precision agriculture is redefining the science of feeding the planet. We're seeing new levels of efficiency, societal responsibility, and nutrition through the application of location intelligence and the emergence of a deep geospatial consciousness.

 

Tractor pulling watering equipment through a field

 

It comes not a moment too soon. Not only do we face the prospect of feeding 9.5 billion people by 2050, but the world has awakened to the unforeseen impacts on our environment and our health of previous revolutions in agriculture—from factory farms, deforestation, and methane emissions from livestock to ocean pollution, overfishing, and concerns about the genetic modification of both crops and animals. 

Fortunately, we now have promising solutions to these and other agricultural and agribusiness challenges of the 21st century. They are playing out in three key dimensions: microlocation, smart supply chains, and environmental stewardship. 

Welcome to the era of sustainable sustenance.

 

Aerial map of a farm overlaid with data on crop health

 

Microlocation—the nanogeography of precision ag: On a precision ag-connected farm, advanced technology is everywhere, and it's location intelligent: mobile devices combined with smart maps, sensors embedded in both equipment and fields, and pickers equipped with trackable smart devices so the farm manager can see where that picker was and when they picked that produce. That can help isolate contamination issues so food isn't unnecessarily destroyed, and it can help farmers identify their best produce so they can repeat that success. 

Soon artificial intelligence (AI)-based robots that are spatially aware will navigate through a field to pick produce. Already, insurance companies are flying drones over fields after floods, fires, and tornados to do rapid damage assessment, cut a check, and get farmers back on their feet. Some companies fly their fields toward the end of the growing season to analyze the vegetative index and get an indication of what the yield will be. That allows them to tell the grain elevator that they're anticipating 5,000 bushels of corn, for example, letting them plan how many combines and how many tractor trailers they'll need to process it all.

From Farm to Fork—the new ag supply-and-demand chain: Modern agriculture is highly complex; and on any given day, farmers are commodity brokers, bankers, chemists, agronomists, pickers, procurement managers, warehousers, machinists, meteorologists, and long-term gamblers. All farmers must now be technologists too. And despite the romantic trope of the solitary farmer in the field, all 21st-century farmers are inherent members of multipart, global supply chains.

Mapping the business ecosystem and the natural ecosystem is also important to the banks that provide farmers with the capital they need to run their business. Lenders need a system of record so they know what's in their portfolio, which clients have what assets and liabilities, and what geographic areas are doing better—creating an automated valuation model to assess agriculture real estate values and determine which farmers are the best risks. And in the developing world, location intelligence-based precision ag offers billions of people the opportunity to leapfrog over millennia of learning for improvement of productivity, nutrition, and sustainability. 

 

Farmer in colorful clothing harvesting berries

 

Sustaining sustenance: We have learned that soil and the nutrients and biological ecosystems it supports are a finite resource. Once that soil is gone, there's no more farming. So applying precision ag to understand how much and what kinds of nutrients to put into the soil; how much water is required to maximize a crop; how much fertilizer, how much seed, and also how much tillage is going on at that exact location—all that will help us understand how to protect our land for future generations. 

The rise of organic and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades has spawned many new businesses, from Whole Foods to Indigo. Agricultural companies like Jackson Family Wines are working on practices such as planting a cover crop, a hedgerow, or riparian plants along a waterway for carbon sequestration. And traditional retailers like Walmart, along with many other Fortune 500 companies, are committing to a green future. In addition to its own decarbonization goals, Walmart has established sustainability requirements for its suppliers. 

"As a research scientist, my goal is to make sure that that margin of error is as thin as possible," says Dr. Angela Bowman, research scientist at John Deere. "I want to make sure that the data is exactly where it's supposed to be in space and time. Given some of the inherent errors within satellite data, for example, that's going to continually evolve. There are other margins of error that occur within data in the field. And I would argue that margins of error should be within a foot of accuracy."

Now, that's precise.

By Charlie Magruder and Matthew Harman, thought leaders in the agriculture industry for Esri.

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