Jacob Bolson 2015-02-23 23:32:14
I work for John Deere’s application equipment business—that is, sprayers—while supporting my wife’s family farm in central Iowa. My role on the John Deere team is to focus on aftermarket business growth opportunities for sprayers that originate in our factories in Des Moines, Iowa; Horst, The Netherlands; and Catalao, Brazil. As I thought about food production in the year 2050, i scanned some of recent newspaper headlines related to agriculture, for example: “$3.24 new crop corn at the local grain elevator” and “livestock producers enjoying well deserved profits after years of financial challenges.” the agriculture news also includes daily debates about biotechnology, environmental concerns, and new developments, such as “big data” and uavs. What is our path to feeding nine billion people by the year 2050? Looking back at food production in 1978, the amount of change that has occurred in the last 36 years is remarkable, but we need more than remarkable change to meet the challenges that are coming. What do we need to do to support farmers in feeding nine billion mouths while working through the coming changes and their impacts on farm management? Looking ahead, we are entering an era of increasingly stringent environmental regulation, significant skilled labor shortages, and exponential growth in the tools that farmers will have access to for raising and managing their crops. Environmental regulations Environmental regulation may be the most contested issue in agriculture. As I write these words, a rally is being staged here in Des Moines, Iowa, for increased government action on ensuring water quality and further regulations on agriculture. The public is concerned about environmental issues, and agriculture is facing increased scrutiny for its environmental stewardship. Rekha Basu, a columnist for our local paper, The Des Moines Register, recently wrote an editorial titled “We can’t let agriculture destroy our environment.” Farmers need our help to improve their environmental stewardship beyond their current initiatives, and they need access to economically feasible technology to quantify their environmental impacts. Much of this technology already exists, and more is coming. For example, by 2050, I predict that all subsurface drainage systems will be actively monitored, controlled, and filtered by intelligent water management and biological control tools. Because of advances in subsurface irrigation technology, millions of acres will no longer rely solely on surfaceapplied crop fertigation. Strategies for determining nutrient levels applied by both surface and subsurface systems will change radically thanks to multi-depth soil sensor networks. These technologies will be scalable—and affordable—for a 10,000 acre operation in western Illinois as well as for a smallholder in sub-Saharan Africa. Skilled labor shortages A shortage of skilled labor is already affecting agriculture on a global basis. The changing rural versus urban population demographic will drive farmers to rely increasingly on automation technology. Skilled labor will always have a place in production agriculture, particularly for high-value crops and for tasks that are beyond the abilities of a machine. However, the skilled labor shortage also carries over to the agribusiness supply chain, ranging from equipment dealerships to agricultural service providers. We must have more collaborative efforts by industry, agricultural organizations, and government to encourage rural population placement and to attract ambitious young people to the agricultural sector. Farm management tools UAVs, big data, biotechnology—producers are encountering these new terms, and many others, much more often. This new, technical vocabulary for farming brings a few thoughts to mind: I’m not sure when “data” was transformed to “big data,” but searching on “big data” returns 15.9 million hits on Google. Even though we now have big data, data management will still be a challenge in 2050 because there will be so much more data to manage. What is the economic value of all these data? Many farmers who started collecting yield monitor data in 1992 still struggle with using those data for strategic planning. Gathering big data is not enough. We must provide solutions that allow farmers to extract value from data. As we provide farmers with continued improvements in crop production through technology solutions—such as UAVs, sensor networks, and other complex devices—what does the service and support model look like? Is the service technician who’s tasked with supporting a 600 horsepower tractor the same technician who supports a fleet of UAVs? What does the customer support strategy look like for a subsurface biological water filtration system? Deploying useful technology is not enough. We must also provide a service and support infrastructure to keep that technology running. Biotechnology in North American crop production has nearly 20 years of field experience, and the debate about biotechnology is as strong as ever. Public concern about biotechnology continues, while—within the agricultural sector—biotechnology is seen as a useful tool for feeding the future population. We must recognize that consumers want diverse choices, which has been demonstrated by the growing acceptance of biotechnology, but also by the growth in specialty markets, such as organic farming. Where will we be in 2050? Even more diversified than we are in 2014, and the debate will continue. However, for the sake of nine billion people—and through engineering advances in energy, soil, air, water, food, and fiber—we will meet the challenge. ASABE Member Jacob Bolson, Product Line Aftermarket Manager, Application Equipment, John Deere Des Moines Works, Des Moines, Iowa, USA; BolsonJacobM@JohnDeere.com. Top photo Wojciech Plonka | Dreamstime. Inset photo Artiso | Dreamstime.
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